Child of Order

by Unwhole Hole

First published

A flight accident propells Rainbow Dash 450 years into the future and into a dark, hyper-technological world where all her friends have long since passed and where shadowy forces conspire to determine the fate of Equestria.

In an attempt to travel faster than any pony in Equestrian history, Rainbow Dash attempts a dive from the firmament itself. Upon exceeding the speed of light she is transported nearly 450 years into the future into a sunless, moonless world ruled by the mysterious immortal Thebe.

Badly wounded, Rainbow Dash is recovered by the undying wanderer Anhelios V and her demon associate Bluntforce Gelding. Rainbow Dash is suddenly thrust into a hyper-technological world that she cannot understand, one where she was assumed to have died- -and one where every pony she ever loved has been dead for hundreds of years.

Trapped in this new world with no hope of return, Rainbow Dash collapses into alcoholism and is haunted by hallucinations of a strange, one-eyed golden pony. At the same time, Anhelios V begins collecting the Elements of Harmony for her own sinister purposes.

As the trio crosses modern Equestria, they encounter a number of strange individuals: the immortal soul of Nightmare Moon, an insane computer virus, a cloned supersoldier from a long-extinct warrior race, and a cybernetic lich pulled from the ruins of an ancient city. Each one becomes a potential friend, a potential enemy- -and a potential pawn in a scheme to alter destiny itself.

Meanwhile, creatures from the infinite Beyond surrounding Equestria descend, bringing with them a devastating plague. Their incomprehensible motives bring them in conflict with the goddess Thebe, who decides that the only correct response to the treat is a cataclysmic war of pony extermination.

Chapter 1: Five, Gelding, Phoenix

View Online

The Forest was eternal. Once, in times long-past, it had been given the title “Everfree”- -but even in the modern age it lived up the name it had once held. Nothing seemed to stop it or kill it, though so many had tried. They had brought chemicals and fire, but even the most brilliant ponies failed to ever truly tame it. Rather, the encroachment of civilization had only increased its virulence, causing it to spread into the newly constructed cities like a powerful, metastatic cancer.

Few, if any, bothered to wander amongst the ancient trees and strange moss. Though none alive could understand what had unnerved their ancestors so, they still felt the atavistic rejection of the forest- -of the disorder that seemed so harmonious and so strange, as if driven by some unseen and vaguely malevolent force.

One pony, however, walked beneath the darkened canopy with neither thought nor recognition of this ancient fear. She could hear the monsters moving around her, and see them sometimes, but she saw no reason to be afraid. It had been so long since she had taste the exhilaration of fear.

This pony had no name, at least not one of her own. The only part of her that held any semblance of individuality to differentiate herself from her predecessors was her number: Five. Her first name, at least as far as she was concerned, was irrelevant, a pointless relic of a dying culture. Its very meaning had been erased from the world- -she doubted if anypony would even comprehend what it meant.

She looked up at the trees. They were warped and spindly, with pale trunks. They either had massive, overgrown leaves, or none at all- -instead having adapted to a life as a kind of fungus rather than a true plant, feeding on mineral veins somewhere deep in the ground or the rot of ancient and long buried mud. Even without sunlight, they had still managed to survive.

In time, however, the land began to change and the trees along with it. Their randomness and untamedness started decrease as a new kind of tree began to dominate, standing like sentries against their ancient and wild rivals. Looking up, Five saw that the tops of the gnarled stems and masses of suckers were adorned with bright red fruits. These trees were arguably ancient- -far older than any apple trees should have been, let alone ones abandoned to the will of nature- -and yet they still stood. Five could only imagine that whoever had planted them so long ago had done so with the greatest care and love, if they were to still be standing in their old age.

Feeling somewhat hungry, she spread her leathery wings. Despite the weight of her saddlebags, she was able to take flight with relative ease, rising through the canopy and taking a place on a thick branch. The manipulator gauntlets on her forelegs shifted, projecting as set of claws to dig into the gnarled and peeling bark.

All around her, swarms of bats took off from the trees- -both fruit bats and vampire fruit bats. They swarmed around her for a moment, seemingly displeased at her presence, but upon seeing her featherless wings and pointed, fluffy ears, they seemed to accept that she at least resembled on of their own.

Five sighed, and reached up and picked one of the apples. It gleamed for a moment in the dim, eternal twilight of Equestria, and Five contemplated it for a moment, the red-skinned fruit between the mechanical claws attached to her hoof. Then she brought the claws together, causing the apple to explode in a mass of juice that caused the vampire fruit bats to swarm around her. She wiped her claw off on the branch below. She was hungry, but not desperate. The idea of food that had any sort of flavor disgusted her desperately.

Instead of eating the apples, she flew higher to the top of the tree and looked out at the land surrounding her. All she saw was an endless sea of treetops beneath a dark sky. All the light that filled the sky came from its edge, which was dimly illuminated blue, as if the sun had just set. It had not, of course- -there was no sun, nor any moon. The two stationary black circles in the center of the sky attested to that- -two holes in the firmament itself, blacker by far than even the darkened sky above. Neither Three, Four, nor Five had ever witnessed the sun, nor had they witnessed the moon. Both had been destroyed before their time, long ago, leaving behind holes into the Beyond- -and yet Five still had memories of what they had looked like, when those holes had been filled with orbs of light, one of heat and one of cool light.

Five stretched out her foreleg and projected a holographic map. Based on historical records, she was close to her target.

How long it had been since ponies had walked where Five now did now. In the time that the Forest had spread and grown and survived, the bastion of peace and pastoral life within had decayed and rotted, slowly being taken back to the Forest, being reborn as something new.

Five pushed through the border of the trees and onto what had probably once been a street. The soil, even after centuries of disuse, had been thoroughly compacted, and only sparse grass grew from it. All around her were non-native trees, planted as ornamentals long ago but now monstrous and alien, alongside the first vanguard of the forest.

In the time of the first- -the only one of them whose name had never bourn a number- -this empty, silent waste had once been a thriving, beautiful town. By the end of her life, it had grown into a city, but still maintained its slowness and tranquility- -things that no modern pony could likely remember every having known. Five could remember what was once there, long before she was born. Where there were now crumbling stone foundations, there had been peaked roof houses and ornate shops. Ponies had once walked through the streets, laughing, playing, living out simple and ignorant lives beneath the sun and moon. On some level, Five could even remember their faces as they stood in the town that had long-since faded from existence.

Those memories lived in her mind, but they were not hers. She hated them more than anything.

As she walked, a tall structure came into view, one that had only partially decayed. In the distance, Five could see the darkened shadow of the Palace of Friendship looming over the remnants of the town.

Five smiled. She had always been a fan of history, and studied it carefully for most of her life. It was her belief that, in part, that urge to understand the past came from the memories of other ponies that seeped into her mind- -but it had served her well. There were countless numbers of artifacts and weapons that had been long forgotten beneath Equestria, leaving their own individual maps across history, tracing their location.

Using one of her gauntlets, Five projected a small hologram of what the Palace of Friendship had once looked like. Physically, the structure had not changed substantially. The building was made of Order-derived stone, and it would take longer than a few centuries for it to decay. The Forest had been trying, though. Moss and vines had climbed up the building, pushing into it and through its windows. No doubt the inside was now filled with nothing but roots and animals.

All the important artifacts had long been removed, though. The enchanted table, or the thrones of Twilight Sparkle and her five friends, her library, and any personal belongings had been collected shortly after her death and distributed to museums and private collections across the land. The Twilight Sparkle Memorial Library was even built in a replica of the castle.

Even after so long, the population retained a strong reverence for the youngest of the four Princesses whose deaths had marked the end of the Third Era. Five knew, however, that few if any realized that the real castle still existed, or if they even cared. Nopony seemed to hold any real desire to walk where the alicorn and her heroic friends had once walked, to see the world that they had seen, or they had simply all forgotten.

The Castle was an interesting relic, but relatively useless to Five. It was not her target, although she considered the possibility of taking a walk through it after she had competed her mission. She, personally, though that Princess Twilight was weak and that the very idea of “friendship” was too dangerous for any pony to wield- -it had, after all, been the deaths of the five that had let to Twilight Sparkle’ suicide close to four centuries earlier.

As Five checked the map again, she heard a familiar call from the sky and saw a small light pass overhead. Five looked up, and then back at her hologram, extending one of her bat-like wings. The bird swooped down and landed gently upon it.

“Philomena,” she said, not taking her eyes of the hologram, attempting to cross-reference two incomplete maps to determine where her target- -which was not on any of the maps- -probably was. “Sister, am I to assume you have sighted something?”

The bird squeaked somewhat annoyed. She did not like being referred to as Five’s “sister”, despite the fact that both of them bore remarkable similarities. Unfortunately, however, the bird could not talk.

Five lowered the hologram and focused her mind. The world shifted as she felt her pupils constrict into green-bordered slits, and she focused her mind on Philomena’s, slowly lowering herself into it. The bird’s feathers ruffled, but she was not in pain- -Five’s intrusion was never dangerous unless she pushed too far, back to the memories of Celestia.

“I see,” said Five, her eyes returning to their normal blue. “I suspected as much. They certainly are unquiet.” She took the bird in her hoof and threw it into the air. “You ought to depart from me. This shall become rapidly violent.”

The bird nodded and flew away, taking up a wide circle in the sky- -prepared to drop down on Five’s enemy with burning claws at a moment’s notice, should it be required.

Five sighed. She had hoped that her mission would be easy, giving her a chance to meander through the remnants of famous but forgotten Ponyville and reflect on the numerous battles that the Princess of Friendship had fought- -perhaps to contemplate some philosophy, or to admire particularly odd specimens of flora. Her occupation was never that easy, though.

“You can come, now,” she said, her large eyes focusing on the figures lurking in the trees and whatever piles of remnants might have happened to remain. “If you desire something, then you may ask.”

The figures suddenly emerged from where they had been “hiding”. Two sets emerged, trapping Five between two large hedgerows- -as if they had completely forgotten that she had wings.

There were four of them. As was to be expected with any location outside of the control of Thebe, two of them were diamond dogs- -ugly, slobbering creatures not nearly as elegant as their ahuizotl cousins, dressed in torn and unwashed camouflage combat fatigues overlaid with their traditional heavy iron armor, each one holding a rusted but still quite deadly rifle.

The other two were ponies of some persuasion. One was a rather scarred individual, smiling wildly, his dark green coat and cutie mark- -a cracking whip- -stained with dirt and covered in the same kind of armor as the diamond dogs. The other was pony shaped, but substantially higher- -at least twelve feet tall, complete with a pair of tiny goat-like horns and a cutie mark of a brick on his orange and pale green coat. He was a demon- -but from his unusual size, lack of wings, and the blank but angry expression on his face, he was clearly also part mortal pony. Five was aware of such hybrids- -many of her living cousins were part demon- -but momentarily found herself wondering how such a pairing would work, considering the size difference. From what she knew about demons, though, she knew that they always found a way when it came to copulation.

Five looked at one side, and then the other. She assessed the situation, and found it somewhat dull. Diamond dogs were the primary race outside of the domes or cities, forming vast underground empires, but even their real military was as primitive as it was aggressive. These were not their military.

“Welcome,” said one of the diamond dogs, the largest of them, stepping forward, smiling. “You enter land of Has-No-Oil. A beautiful land, indeed.” His expression converted to a mocking frown. “But this is trespass.” He shook his head, as did the others, save for the demon pony, who did not seem to understand what was going on. The pony amongst them giggled slightly. “So, if you could,” said the diamond dog. “We collect toll now.”

“Six,” said Five. “I have no money. No bits, no jewels.”

“Have pretty earring!” said the large pony, his angry expression breaking down into an oafish smile. He pointed with one massive cloven hoof at the three rings in Five’s right ear.

“They are stainless steel,” sighed Five. “Not worth anything to you. Five.”

The two diamond dogs snickered. The wild-eyed pony stepped forward. “I believe I can…oh!” He broke out into laughter. “Come on guys! I can’t keep a straight face when your laughing!”

“We sorry! We…pffff!” The diamond dogs doubled over. “You say- -when you say toll- -”

“Ohhhh,” said the pony, wiping away the tears of laughter form his eyes. “Oh…but no. You see, we own you now.”

Five felt several pricks in her flank, and looked down to see several darts in rear. It seemed that they had targeted her cutie mark- -a white image of an orthoclase feldspar crystal- -but had instead struck the extensive black stain that surrounded that mark. Five smiled, realizing how close she had just come to a severe delay in her mission.

“With a rock cutie mark, you must be some kind of a miner. And a bat, no less,” said the pony, smiling even wider. “Of course, we will have to remove those wings.”

“I am not a miner. Four. However, I will make you an offer.”

“An offer?” said the pony, suddenly seeming to become nervous. His eyes flicked to the diamond dog across from him, and the diamond dog shrugged, not understanding why the darts were not working.

“Everything you have,” said Five. “Three. All your gems, weapons, ammunition. And…” she pointed at the smallest of the diamond dogs. “His legs.”

“My legs?” he said, suddenly panicking, although even he probably did not know why.

“Sever them. I want them.”

“That’s not an offer,” said the lead diamond dog.

“Idiot!” snapped the pony. “We already have her, and everything she has.” His eyes darted about, possibly because of a chemical addiction or possibly because he could sense that the situation was rapidly degrading- -even though he did not know why.

“Give me everything. It is all mine now. Two.”

“Why she counting?” said the demon, seeming to be the only one to notice.

They all looked at her, confused, perhaps still waiting for the darts to take effect- -even though they had never really penetrated Five’s skin.

Finally, she sighed. “One.”

Five moved quickly and effortlessly. Little of her own life had been spent training for combat, but the other four had learned the old ways- -but it was more than that. She was born to a long line of killers, of assassins stretching back to the days of Nightmare Moon, the Eternal Queen, warriors who had carefully chosen their mating to breed only the best killers to serve as protectors to Princess Luna. Five’s motions were clean and clinical: she reached beneath her saddlebags and drew a short rifle, holding it in the claws that she had spent over half a century mastering.

The pony was the first to realize that something had gone wrong- -and also seemed to be the only one of them that was unarmed. That was a major defect of earth ponies- -they had magic and no hands, and holding or carrying weapons was difficult for them.

Even as evolutionarily inferior as earth ponies were, they were strong. They valued their strong legs more than anything- -so Five fired a bullet through his front knee, ensuring that he would never walk again with that leg.

He screamed, not so much in pain but in surprise. Five immediately dropped and rolled to her side, dodging the surge of automatic fire that came from behind her. The bullets meant for her instead struck the demon pony standing next to his friend. He cried out and stepped back, even though the tiny crystalline bullets had no effect on his demonic skin.

“Why you shoot Brick?” he cried. “Brick is friend!”

“You idiot,” hissed the pony on the ground. “Get her!”

Five moved swiftly, rising from her roll and shifting ammunition. There was a whine as the crystal generator in her rifle charged. She opened her eyes- -her real eyes- -and saw each of their minds, localized in her view. They were all confused, but not really afraid- -more of angry. None of the ponies they had captured or robbed had ever actually fought back before. That was not what ponies did- -they solved their problems peacefully, with negotiations and “friendship”. They had no idea what was happening.

Five focused on the smaller of the two diamond dogs and fired. She had not bothered to raise the power capacity of her rifle- -there was really no need to actually murder anypony- -but watched as the diamond dog’s front burst into carbon. He cried out as he was burned, dropping his own rifle and running away.

“Coward!” said the other. He reached for something on his back.

“No, you idiot!” cried the slaver pony, trying to stand. “If she- -”

“You hurt Bullwhip!” cried the demon, bringing down one of his nearly pony-sized hoofs down on Five’s position. She had not seen it coming- -even a half demon was still difficult to read- -and she barely dodged in time.

As she did, she suddenly felt the diamond dog smiling behind her- -and felt a sudden surge of burning pain in her left foreleg. She started falling to one side.

She adapted and rolled, tucking her gun under her wing and releasing her saddlebags to balance the weight. As she stood, she looked down- -only to see that her arm had been completely torn away, leaving only a gushing wound, the fragments of her bone and twitching of her muscle still visible.

“You- -you moron!” she screamed, taking the gun in her wing and adjusting the setting with her mouth. “Do you know the cost of that gauntlet? I just purchased it!”

She turned the weapon on the diamond dog, aiming to take from him roughly what had been taken from her. In her haste- -and perhaps distracted by the pain- -she did not bother to check her target; instead of striking his shoulder, she struck the large iron pauldron that covered it. The metal instantly liquefied and burst forth with a plume of red-hot metal, but the energy did not penetrate to flesh.

Before she could react further, however, something incredibly heavy struck her from behind. The wind was knocked out of her, and she felt something insider her crack. She became distantly aware that she could no longer feel her rear legs.

She fell to the ground, and the dust got into her wound, causing her to cry out. Her rifle clattered to the ground, but she still managed to stand on the one leg she had remaining and tried to crawl away.

“Bat pony have pretty rump,” giggled the demon. Five was vaguely aware that her tail had been flipped up, even though she had no feeling in the lower half of her body.

“I am not mildly displeased,” she said, watching as blood dripped from her mouth. “Perhaps I will not let you- -”

The ground before her suddenly shifted, causing the diamond dog to jump back. The soil itself swirled and shifted, forming a complex shape that ignited and began to bleed a deep crimson fluid from the grouond, as though it had been wounded.

“No!” screamed Five. “Gell, not now! I’m not finished yet!”

It was too late. The pentagram finished its construction and roared as the universe was momentarily rended apart. In the smoldering, sulfurous ground, surrounded by the burning pentagram, stood a hooded, cloaked pony.

“What this?” said Brick, pushing Five aside, her rear turning at an angle from her body that it was not supposed to. “Brick smash smelly pony!”

“You idiot, don’t- -” cried his associate.

Brick brought his hoof down on the pony with all his might. There was a sickening crack, and then a scream. Brick jumped back, blubbering as blood began to seep from his cracked hoof.

“Half…BREED!” shouted the figure, her voice far deeper than any Equestrian mare’s should have been. She tore away her cloak, revealing her true nature.

She was not nearly as tall as Brick, but from her features it was apparent that she, unlike him, was a pureblood demon form Tartarus. Her thick body- -almost twice as tall as a normal pony- -was light pink. Taken in combination with her oversized, bat like ears, her long, ibex-like horns, tusks, fangs, and even the image of an ornate meat tenderizer hammer as cutie mark should have seemed ridiculous togather. Paired with her black, segmented armor, cloven hoofs, and expression in her face, she terrified even Five.

With a swift motion, she uppercut the much larger half-demon, exposing the part of him that she really wanted. The pink demon promptly turned and bucked him in the crotch with enough force to send him sailing backward through the trees, crashing through feet-thick trunks as he wept in pain.

“Oh…ooohhhhh,” she said, crossing her rear legs and putting her hoof between her rear legs. “Oh An…I felt one of them burst. Ohhh…you have no idea how pleasurable castration is…”

“Do not call me An,” said Five. “Go home Gell. I need not your help.”

“Really?” said Gell. “Because it looked to me like you were about to get butt-bungled by a filthy halfbreed.”

“I wouldn’t have felt it anyway.” Five pointed to her legs. “Paralyzed.”

“Really? Seriously? I take a nap for like, thirty hours, and this happens?”

“D-demon!” cried the remaining pony. He seemed to realize that his situation was now beyond repair and limped away down the path that had been cleared by Brick, who was now blubbering in the distance.

Gell picked up Five’s gun. It looked tiny in her massive hooves. She aimed at the pony running.

“Aw, there,” she said, dropping the gun. “His tail’s too bushy. Can’t get a good and proper nut-shot.”

There was a clink of metal against metal as chunk of scrap iron struck Gell’s armor. She turned slowly to see the diamond dog still holding the mass accelerator that had taken Five’s leg.

“A doggy,” she said, suddenly seeming rather bored. “Oh, joy.” She waked toward it slowly, receiving multiple blows from its projectiles. Most of them struck her armor, but the shaking, terrified diamond dog- -still too foolish to run- -finally managed to strike her face.

“Ow,” she said as putrid, stinking fluid bubbled form the wound. Then she smiled, her mouth drawing apart far wider than a pony’s should have, revealing the several rows of shark-like teeth characteristic of females of her species. “Is that all? You do realize that I am a demon, eh? As in we enjoy pain? And pleasure…well, everything, really.”

The diamond dog tried to fire again, but he was out of ammunition. Rather than try to reload from the sack of rebar on his back, he immediately started trying to dig downward, only to suddenly freeze just as he took his first handful of soil from the street below.

“See?” said Gell, turning back to Five. “You could have done that from the start.”

“You know I don’t like using her power for things like that,” said Five. With a crack- -and significant pain- -she relocated her spine. Internally, she felt the nerves begin reconnecting, restoring what had once been. Then she stood. “This was intended as a training exercise.”

“You failed it, I think,” said Gell, looking down at the terrified diamond dog. She picked him up and leaned him back, gently reaching between his legs.

“Oh yeah,” said Gell, once again shaking with anticipation. “Such a nice pair…I can’t decide if I’ll burst them slowly and feed you the wreckage, or if I’ll use my mouth and have them myself.” Her long, forked black tongue licked her lips.

“Don’t,” said Five, retrieving her rifle. “The last time I observed such, I was given nightmares for a month.”

“Then don’t watch me. Besides, I’m hungry. I need meat.” She looked directly into the diamond dog’s eyes. “And by meat, yes, I do mean that meat. Nothing like a…hot dog.” She cackled deeply. Then she turned back to Five. “And when did you have nightmares? You don’t sleep!”

“One does not need to sleep to possess nightmares.” After a moment of searching, she found her severed arm. It had not been nearly as cleanly removed as she thought- -the entire upper section had been shattered and shredded, but the gauntlet seemed relatively undamaged.

“Hah,” said the diamond dog, finding himself distantly able to speak through the magical binds on his mind. “At least I took one thing from you!”

“No,” said Five, turning her severed arm over in her remaining claw to check the metal of the gauntlet’s frame. “It looks serviceable.”

“I think he means the arm,” said Gell, smiling as the diamond dog started to whine as she squeezed.

“The arm?” said Five, looking at it. “Oh.”

She held the wreckage of the arm near her bleeding stump. Much to her disappointment, the bleeding had still not stopped. She begrudgingly admitted- -but only to herself- -that she only had a few more minutes until lethal exsanguination.

Her hair moved as she summoned the power in the numerous small lumps that lined the top of her skull and upper vertebrae. Sparks of Order poured out of her stump, reaching into the severed arm, pulling the entropy from it, forcing the damaged flesh and bone to reconfigure itself into its proper shape. Her own flesh distorted and reached out, attaching to the arm, rebuilding the connections to it.

There was a sudden surge of pain as the nerves reconnected, and the limb suddenly became uncomfortably tingly, as if it had been asleep for a long time. She flexed the mechanical fingers, and then shifted the tool into a long blade.

“I suppose we can cut part of him off,” she said, turning toward the diamond dog.

“Noooooo,” howled the diamond dog, suddenly realizing just how bad things were for him. Five sighed. Those that the diamond dog emirates ejected were, indeed, quite slow.

“Fine,” said Five, retracting the blade. “Leave him whole.”

“Squeamish,” muttered Gell, the diamond dog letting out a wide-eyed yelp as she gave him one last squeeze.”

“Go through his possessions,” said Five. “Take his gems.”

“Gems?” said the diamond dog, his eyes widening. “What? No, no! No please! Take parts, take legs, take life. But please, not touch my gems!”

Five stepped over to him and rummaged through his supplies. She took found a prodigious quantity of gemstones and jewels, probably several pounds of them crammed into every possible pocket at the expense of actual, practical items.

When she believed she had found them all, she set them in a pile before the diamond dog. He was now weeping, struggling to escape, to take back those precious glittery stones. “Please…don’t take my gems. I give you everything…”

“There is nothing this world can provide,” said Five. “What I want, I can never have. And I do not intend to take these.”

“N-no?”

Five focused her energy. A bolt of blue Order shot from her, and she used it to rearrange the facets on the crystals- -instantly reducing them to microscopic dust.

“NOOOOOO!” howled the diamond dog. “You didn’t even- -you didn’t even try to love them!”

“Love is a disease,” said Five, calmly. “A disease that I refuse to be afflicted by. Six.”

The diamond dog collapsed to the ground, suddenly finding himself able to move. Five sighed- -although she did not show it, using the dark power within her to do any more than hear was extremely draining.

“My gems,” said the diamond dog, not seeming to realize what was going on.

“Five,” said Five.

The diamond dog suddenly seemed to realize that Five was counting down again. He looked up at Gell, who sighed and nodded. Then he took to the ground, digging into the mud his tears had made. Within seconds, he was gone.

Gell watched him leave, then turned to Five.

“Well, that went well,” said Five. “Although I- -”

She was cut off as a cloven hoof slammed into the side of her head, catching it and ramming into the dirt below.

“You idiot,” screamed Gell, virtually standing on Five’s head, driving her muzzle into the dust below. “Are you trying to get yourself killed?”

Five turned her head, leaving a small pool of blood from her injured nose. “You know as well as I do,” she said. “My only purpose in life is to die. It was what I was born for, and the sole reason I have value.”

Gell could tell that she was serious.

“You should not have assisted,” said Five. “You should have stayed in the Pocket.”

“Like Tartarus,” spat Gell, twisting her hoof on Five’s head, grinding the dust into her mouth. “We have a contract, remember, An?”

“You have no contract with me,” said Five.

“I do not need your consent. An, how long have we been working together?”

“Since the death of Four.”

“That’s what? Sixty years or somesuch?” she released Five’s head, her anger having been mostly resolved. “By Satin, I’m old. But I virtually raised you.”

“Poorly,” said Five, standing, feeling her arm returning to normal after its reattachment.

“Who cares? My mother ate half my siblings. Not half by number- -half their bodies. Each.”

“I was not in any real danger.”

“Yes, you were. You know I can’t let you die.”

“Because you are concerned for me, or because I am not yet pregnant with Six?”

“Both. The two are not mutually exclusive.” She looked around her. “Now, where the there are we?”

“It used to be called Ponyville,” said Five.

“I know the name,” said Gell. “My father was stationed here. Which reminds me. He invited you to our family gathering on Satinmass.”

“I accept,” sighed Five. She was actually somewhat fond of Gell’s family, especially her father, Spiny Violation. He had the most beautiful garden of cactuses that Five had ever seen.

“So why are we in this dump?”

“Just follow me,” said Five, reprojecting her map and continuing with her work.

It took nearly an hour of searching to find the target. It was actually Philomena who spotted it first- -a field on a distant hill, apart from the main town, a place where no trees grew. It was a place that was empty in all the maps, but that Five knew to exist. It had to- -but because of its nature, no pony would include it in any element of the town’s history.

The fence that had surrounded the cemetery had long-since rotted away to dust, but some of the stones still stood. Many had eroded to virtual nothingness, and most had fallen and disappeared. Nearly all of them stood crooked, the ground beneath having been shifted by so many cycles of frost and by the encroaching roots of the trees- -or by something more sinister.

Five walked between the stones, searching, occasionally stopping to wipe away the centuries-old lichen or moss that grew upon them.

“A graveyard,” said Gell, shivering. “This is very you.”

“Shut it,” said Five. “I am trying to concentrate.”

“What are we looking for?”

“A stone that will likely appear different from the others. No doubt enchanted to resist decay.”

Philamena spread her wings and took flight, travelling to a distinct section in the rear of the cemetery and standing atop one of the graves. Five walked over and carefully examined it, but she already knew that it was the correct one.

It stood beside a pair of stones, amongst several others, all of them corroded to unreadability, save for that singular stone, its white and incorruptible stone seeming to resonate with magic. A final parting gift, no doubt, from Twilight Sparkle.

“Oh, wow,” said Gell, looking at the inscription on the headstone. “She died in her mid-thirties.”

“Bone cancer,” said Five, recalling her history. “Rainbow Dash was first. She died in a flight accident. Applejack was second.”

“I’m actually kind of surprised,” said Gell, admiring the stone. “I mean, she was one of the Six. And they gave her this dinky grave? I mean, New Cloudsdale had a Rainbow Dash monument.”

“I knew her, I think,” said Five, contemplating the headstone. “This would be the sort of thing she would ask for. A simple grave, beside her parents.”

Five reached into her supplies and withdrew a metal tool. She extended the handle and folded out a long flat blade. She paused for a moment, no so much out of respect but out of trying to imagine the best way to go about her task. Then she plunged the shovel blade into the weedy, rocky soil.

It took nearly two hours to dig through the soil. Gell simply watched, with Philomena sitting on the tip of one of her long horns. Five did not want their assistance anyway. This was a task meant for her, and her alone.

“Be sure to save some of the dirt,” said Gell, now sitting on a nearby grave that probably belonged to one of Applejack’s siblings. “You can use it for some neat potions.”

“I am aware,” said Five. She plunged the shovel into the ground and it struck wood. Five dropped her shovel and put her hoof against the rotted lid. Her claws dug into it and she tore away the top of the coffin.

After several centuries in the ground, bodies ceased to have the smell of rot- -but they still had a smell, one that Five did not find entirely unpleasant. She felt the dust and long-trapped air from the coffin rise up and took a moment to appreciate the aroma. Then she looked inside.

There was not much left. All the flesh had rotted away long ago, and only minor remnants of clothing still clung to the corpse- -no doubt, Five knew, a dress that had been manufactured by Rarity expressly for this purpose.

Five reached into the grave and felt her metal claw surround soft, ancient bone. She pulled upward, and the skull gleamed in the light.

“The skull of the Element of Harmony,” she said, admiring it, even with its structure so badly ravaged by the vicious metastatic bone destruction that had terminated the skull’s original user.

“Great,” sighed Gell. “Just four more to go.”

“I have a lead on Rarity,” said Five, placing the skull carefully in a specialized case and folding her shovel back to its collapsed position. “But it is a weak one.”

“And the other three?”

“We’re not going to get much from Dash,” said Five, climbing out of the hole. “She was apparently vaporized in the accident. Nothing left to use. The nature of Fluttershy’s death is unknown, as is her grave.”

“And Princess Sparkle?”

“An alicorn skull alone correctly manipulated could level a continent,” said Five, brushing herself off. She did not bother to refill the grave; rain and erosion would eventually do it for her. “So we can safely assume that it is now possessed by Thebe.”

“Dude. I am not going to try to steal from her,” said Gell.

“Then we leave the Element of Magic for last.”

Chapter 2: Vanguard

View Online

At the exact time when Five returning to the Pocket reunite Applejack and Pinkie Pie, in a village thousands of miles away, life was going on as usual.

This particular village was far to the west, on the borders of Equestria, a colony on the small amount left that remained a true frontier. Most of it consisted of prefabricated modules, remnants from a time decades earlier from when such a style of construction was considered popular and futuristic. After constant use, however, they had grown old and started to fail. Acid-plate paint was starting to peel in places, and the HVAC systems that regulated the internal temperature failed most of the time. Aside from that, every fixture and architectural design seemed old- -and not in a charming way.

The ponies of that outpost did not mind the state of their homes, though. They took good care of them, and had for years. They did not mind trading a bit of aesthetic appeal for lives reminiscent of a simpler time. They had come for many reasons, but the most common among them was to escape the endless noise of the megacities or the danger of the dome-cities that encroached into more aggressive territory. Some of them had even been born on the firmament colonies and come longing for the sensation of grass beneath their hooves.

Night was falling. Not literally, of course- -the sky had been perpetually darkened for so long, the only pictures of the sun that anypony had ever seen were in books or poorly rendered hologram simulations. Most ponies, however, did not react well to constant darkness. Day-night cycles were critical, and the city had been fitted with powerful halide lights to produce a sensation of “day”. When “night” started to come, the lights would slowly begin to turn off until the village was dark.

The ponies all seemed to know this. They were finishing up the last of their chores and returning to their homes, or to the local bar. The town itself was bristling with a little bit extra of excitement- -there were only a few weeks remaining Harmony Day, a celebration in remembrance of how the Six had united Equestria and defeated the monster crystalline monster Nil in ancient times. Like most holidays, ponies really just used it as an excuse to get drunk and sing songs.

As they stopped to talk in the street and walk home, however, a distant sound suddenly rained across the plains. Instinctively, they all looked up. At first, they thought they were seeing a meteor shower- -until they realized that the streaking lights were not crossing the firmament, but coming through it- -entering though one of the holes that had once held a Celestial Sphere.

The air raid siren- -so quiet for so long, save for its noon tests every day- -began to sound. There were still ponies old enough to remember the Invasion, the last time that things had come from the Beyond, and how many ponies had died in that war.

They immediately began to panic, but the elderly among them remembered the endless drills from their youth. They took command, stepping out of their homes and rising from their beds.

“To the underground shelters!” an old stallion called, standing on his hind legs and motioning to the panicking villagers.

“Look!” said another pony, looking up at the falling object. A beam of energy had suddenly ignited from somewhere in the far distance, and thousands of guns had opened fire. The magic and defense guns of Thebe poured into the falling object, striking it without so much as a warning to turn back. It burst into a massive explosion as the beam of magic surged through it with enough force to punch a temporary hole in the firmament behind it, which rapidly sealed.

The threat had been mediated, and the ponies of the prefab village cheered, clapping their hooves together. The falling debris of the enemy ship was burning through the air like fireworks- -a perfect display, considering how close Harmony day was.

“Praise Thebe!” called one of the ponies.

“Praise Thebe!” called many of the others. Some, however- -those who knew better- -only sneered at their more ignorant countryponies.

“Warning,” boomed the female voice of the village’s AI through the loudspeaker system. “Danger of Debris impact assessed at thirty percent within specified radius. Please report to underground shelters and await further instructions.”

The ponies suddenly started to panic again. Few of them had realized that when something large was destroyed in the upper atmosphere, it still fell- -and in this case, it seemed to be falling directly toward them.

Most of them were already underground when the ground shook from the impact. The few that were above felt the ground shake- -but luckily, the impact had been a good distance from the village center.

One of the ponies above- -an old stallion, who, despite his age, still bore a stern expression that seemed to exude strength and command power. He put his hoof on the shoulder of a younger Pegasus beside him who was following his wife underground.

“Cliff Diver,” he said. “Summon the militia.”

“Why, Mayor?”

“We have a job to do. Get your gun.”

“Right, sir,” said Cliff Diver. He leaned in and kissed his wife.

“Daddy?” said the little filly at his wife’s side. “Miss A-I said to get underground.”

“Daddy has a militia job to do. Don’t worry.” His wife nodded and ushered their daughter into the shelters- -just as another pony came up from the ground.

“I want to come too,” said a slightly older filly.

The mayor shook his head. “No,” he said. “You are too young for this job.”

“You’re checking the debris for survivors,” she said, frowning. She pulled out her own version of a scanner- -one she had built from prepared from scrap kitchen appliances. “And if we get a live Incurse, the reward alone would pay for a new school roof.”

“And how, little Epicenter, do you expect to help us catch an Incurse?” sneered Cliff Diver, patting her head. “You don’t even have your cutie mark.”

“If there were an incurse,” said the mayor, not amused, “there would be little chance of capturing it. But there isn’t. Nothing could have survived a direct impact like that.”

“So there’s no danger.”

The mayor sighed. “No. And you are of age for the junior brigade.”

“So I can come?” said Epicenter, her eyes widening.

“Yes, but you will not receive a weapon.” The mayor looked up at Cliff Diver. “Move,” he said, motioning for the Pegasus to do his job.

“R-right,” said Cliff Diver, rushing away to collect the other militia members. He himself went to prepare the rover, and Epicenter followed him, beaming and bouncing with audible squeaks. She had finally been given her first mission- -and a chance to see something that came from Beyond. In addition, she was pretty sure that something this awesome would virtually guarantee that she would receive her cutie mark.

The rover moved quickly over the grass and soil, bouncing and jumping. Epicenter held onto part of the roll cage, trying desperately not to vomit as the vehicle shook and accelerated with reckless disregard toward safety.

“First time on a vehicle?” said the unicorn sitting next to her. Epicenter knew him at least in passing- -he was a miner, or some kind of surveyor. He was a brandishing a laser rifle, even though his magical power essentially made him a living mining drill.

“No,” lied Epicenter as another bump nearly launched off her seat and into the dust below.

In the distance, a plume of smoke became visible from where the wreckage had barely overshot the village. Epicenter felt a chill of excitement in her spine- -she had only ever read about the Beyonders in books, and only seen pictures of their technology beamed over the Ponynet when the satellites aligned properly. Now, she was actually going to see something real. She calmed herself, and determined that she would accept even something as limited as a simple meteor. Perhaps they would even let her take a piece.

Leadfoot, the driver, pressed the accelerator and the rover accelerated, diving off a short, ramp-like rock.

“Nice one,” said Leadfoot’s brother, Leadhead.

“Come on!” cried Cliff Diver, who seemed oddly terrified. “You guys are gonna kill us!”

“Nope,” said Leadhead. “We aren’t dead.”

“Logical conclusion,” said Leadfoot over the roar of the engine. “We can’t die.”

“Dumkoffs,” said Stone Boring, nearly dropping his rifle over the bump.

The vehicle suddenly skidded to a stop, and Epicenter cried out, thinking that it was crashing. She even felt it tilt as the two wheels on one side lifted up- -but then they slammed back into the ground.

The seven of them disembarked, and Epicenter found that she was shaking badly. Ponies, in her belief, were not meant to ride in cars.

“Radiation levels?” asked the mayor, drawing his own weapon, a large plasma projector.

“Six percent above background,” said the equidroid among them. She stepped forward, observing the bits of flaming material singing holes into the endless tall grass of the frontier plain. Epicenter had very seldom seen the village AI use one of its independent bodies. She had seen them several times in storage, but moving, they looked completely different. Pony shaped, but made of ceramic armor over delicate electronics and motors with large, glassy eyes. In a way, it was unnerving in its own right- -and, to Epicenter, impossibly cool.

“Safe to approach?”

“Most likely.”

“Right,” said the mayor, holstering his gun and taking out a small scanner, attaching it to the straps of his militia uniform. “Fan out find the main body.”

“Right,” said Epicenter, producing her own makeshift scanning unit.

“Epicenter,” said the mayor. “Stay with Leadhead.”

“Yes, sir,” she said, suppressing the urge to rebel against being treated like a child. Just getting to see the long streak of debris that had fallen behind them was already amazing to the point of distracting her from that perceived slight.

The mayor nodded and they started to walk around the debris, with Epicenter standing beside the tall earth pony beside her, scanning the wreckage carefully.

“Look here,” said Stone Boring. “I have located a metal plate.”

“Clearly,” said the AI, nearly sarcastically.

“It appears unusual,” said Stone Boring. “In that the material is only mildly burned, and appears to show greater corrosion than expected for something in a vacuum. Also, the insignia…”

“Insignia?” said Leadfoot, suddenly leaping over the flames and still superheated pieces of wreckage. “Why didn’t you say so?”

“Because it was not interesting.”

Epicenter suddenly felt an urge to join them, to see the insignia, but Leadhead seemed not to care and kept moving forward. Even the AI seemed curious and took a look. All she managed to see was an elaborate and indecipherable symbol.

“I am cross referencing it against known Incurse insignias, as well as the current database of approved Beyonder crafts.” She paused. “None found.”

“Here,” called the mayor, waving them over to a spot farther away. Leadhead began running, and Epicenter followed.

It was the main crater, where the object had landed. It was wide, but not nearly wide as it should have been. It seemed to contain a large plate of material that was still smoking, which Epicenter could imagine as part of some kind of spacecraft.

The mayor went first, sliding down the border of the crater but being careful to stay at a reasonable distance from the debris in the center. The others joined him, with Cliff Diver fluttering down on his wings and the rest sliding- -or tumbling, as was the case for Leadhead.

Each of them unhooked their scanners and extended the antenna- -save for the equidroid, whose scanning apparatus was built into her already. They slowly began to move around the perimeter.

“Are you getting anything?” said Cliff Diver.

“No,” said the mayor, sounding relieved. “There is no Incurse signature.”

“You could say it’s just a piece of ship,” snorted Leadfoot. They all glared at him. “Same, though. No signature.”

“None here,” said Cliff Diver.

“Nope,” said Leadhead.

“Perhaps traces,” suggested Stone.

“Not detecting,” said the AI.

Epicenter suddenly froze, causing Leadhead to bump into her.

“What’s wrong?” he asked, grabbing her to prevent her from falling.

“I- -I- -I’m getting a signal.”

“On that thing?” said Cliff Diver. “That thing couldn’t detect Incurse if it bit you in the plo- -”

“It’s not- -not Incurse,” said Epicenter. She had suddenly started shaking, and found it difficult to speak. She adjusted her settings, but it all came to the same thing. The very thought of what she was reading was inconceivable and horrible- -and she could almost not bring herself to say it, to bring that impossible and terrible idea into reality.

“What is it?” demanded the mayor.

Epicenter closed her eyes. “I am reading…a heartbeat.”

“A pulse?” laughed Cliff Diver. “You have to be kidding…”

The other did not seem to think so. Leadfoot was the first to reset his scanner. Theirs were not intended to look for life signs and Incurse at the same time- -if it had not been for Epicenter’s self-made scanner, none of them would have ever known.

“What the Tartarus?” he cried. “Mayor, she’s right!”

They all switched their scanners and all gasped and stared at the wreckage in horror. No doubt, their thoughts all came to the same conclusion- -that something had gone wrong, that the incorrect ship had been targeted, that something form the space program had been shot down by accident. No Beyonder yet encountered had a physiology remotely akin to ponies- -none of them had hearts. It could only be coming from a pony.

“If there is a pulse, there is a survivor,” said the mayor. “Come on, move! Get that thing off him!”

They moved toward the wreckage, but none of them could get close enough to touch it. The heat it was giving off was far too intense.

“Radiation levels unsafe,” warned the AI.

“Can you get close?” asked the mayor.

“Yes, but one body is not strong enough to move this. I can attach a rope to the rover and- -”

Before she could finish, the wreckage suddenly moved. Not slowly, or with warning- -it simply lifted across the ground and flew in a seemingly unending arc, as if an explosive had been detonated beneath it. All of them jumped back in surprise, but none of them looked to see where the debris landed. Instead, they looked into the center of the crater.

A figure slowly rose, one that caused them all instinctive fear. It was completely alien in nature, unlike anything any of them had ever seen on Equestria. Unlike a pony, it stood on two legs, and was far taller and thinner than they were. Standing like that, it looked wrong- -its belly did not stick out as a ponies did when she tried to stand, and its legs lacked the necessary number of joints.

Its body was clad in an unfamiliar kind of armor made from a material that appeared to be some kind of metal- -but it was badly damaged. If the creature was assumed to be symmetrical, and at least somewhat pony-like, half its body had been torn away. One of its arms and much of its torso had been removed, and the resulting wound was dripping red blood. The flesh of its insides were exposed- -as well as a number of components that were clearly not flesh.

None of them spoke, because none of them knew what was going on. They were unsure of what they were seeing. Among them, none had ever seen a Beyonder. Even the Incurse were a mystery- -no pony actually knew what they looked like, just that they were the enemy.

The creature said nothing, but its head slowly turned. Epicenter imagined that it had a face- -but she could not see it through its thick mask. The mask-face, though, was in its own way terrifying. It was flat and featureless, with a pair of wide, glowing eyes that seemed to have no feature aside form a kind of internal light.

“What- -what is that thing?” said Leadfoot, reaching for his weapon.

“Don’t. Move,” said the mayor sternly.

“It is clearly injured,” said the AI. “Extrapolating from pony physiology, it will die shortly if not repaired.”

“That is not a pony,” said Cliff Diver.

“No, but it is injured,” said the mayor. He sounded nervous, and Epicenter knew why. She was familiar with the defense guns that protected Equestria- -and knew that this creature, whatever it was, should have been turned to dust. The mayor was not concerned for the creature, but terrified of it- -especially since they had just seen it toss several tons of metal with one stroke into the distance without any visible effort.

The mayor slowly stepped forward. Epicenter breathed heavily- -she had expected wreckage, perhaps, in her wildest hopes, a fragment of working technology- -but now she was witnessing first contact with a new Beyonder species.

“Hello,” said the mayor. “Are you able to speak?”

The creature looked down at the mayor, and then slowly down at its badly damaged body, as if it had been unable to determine that it was injured from feeling pain alone.

“Yes, yes,” said the mayor. “You are hurt. We can help you, if you come with us.”

It looked down at the mayor, but allowed him to get closer. Their eyes seemed to meet, but then the creature turned toward the distance, toward where the village was.

“Something’s wrong,” said Cliff Diver. “I don’t like this…”

It looked down at the mayor again, who was now smiling. It was a caring expression, one that could be nothing other than genuine. Epicenter saw that, even for this strange creature, the mayor truly did care.

The air seemed to vibrate. All the scanners suddenly surged, beeping out a warning.

“Detecting magic surge,” warned the AI urgently.

There was no time, though. The mayor’s body shattered into a cloud of blood and tissue, his bones and flesh, as well as his clothing and weapon, torn apart into tiny individual pieces. Epicenter gaped, her mind unable to comprehend what had happened- -he had been there, and then, just as suddenly, he was gone.

The other ponies reacted quickly, raising their weapons. The sound of gunfire and laser discharges rang out across the crater. Impacts against the creature’s armor had no effect whatsoever, but any impact against its flesh damaged it as much as it would a pony- -except that it did not seem to notice.

It turned toward its attackers, the remains of the mayor still suspended magical in the air. It reached toward Leadfoot, and the pony was suddenly drawn toward the creature. He cried out, firing wildly- -and striking Cliff Diver instead, how cried out as one of his wings went limp.

The creature did not stop, and did not hesitate. It grasped Leadfoot’s head, and with one swift motion crushed it into pulp. Leadfoot’s body then evaporated into constituent components, just as the mayor’s had.

“Brother!” screamed Leadhead in anguish. In his rage, he ran forward, screaming, firing his back-mounted gun at the vulnerable parts of the creature- -only to have his body torn apart before he even reached it.

“No way,” said Cliff Diver. He threw down his weapon and tried to run up the edge of the crater, finding that he would just fall back down whenever he tried.

“Coward!” cried Stone Boring. He threw down his own weapon and lowered his horn, which glowed with a dirty yellow light that rapidly heated to high-purity white. Then he fired.

A complex, nearly crystalline shield surrounded the creature, absorbing the magic, even as Stone Boring kept up the blast, increasing its intensity.

“You want to try me?” he called, laughing. “I can drill through stone all day!”

Then the shield collapsed. The result was impossible, however, at least to Epeicenter’s eyes. The beam, instead of cutting through, fed back toward Stone Boring. Before he could react, his horn exploded in a sudden surge of blood and bone fragments, taking most of his head with it.

The creature turned its attention to him, and a beam of arcing, electrical magic shot from it. Where it impacted Boring Stone, his body shifted and tightened, twisting as it resolved into crystal. He only had a moment to scream before the crystal destabilized, shattering, leaving nothing behind but dust and the remnants of his upper body, which were promptly drawn toward the creature and disassembled.

Now surrounded by galaxies of blood and bone, the creature seemed to take inventory. Different parts moved, seeming to organize themselves by type and nature. Blood and bone and various types of flesh were put in categories separate from fragments of cloth and plastic, which in turn were kept separate from mechanical components from the weapons, which had not been torn so much as carefully disassembled.

“Engaging defense protocol,” said the equidroid, her head and neck beginning to part to deploy whatever weapons she had within her- -only for her body to be promptly pulled apart, not by violence but by technical, rapid disassembly- -and added to the creature’s collection.

The resulting tissue then began moving, swarming toward the creature. It poured into its wound, and Epicenter watched as its flesh was rebuilt from that which it had taken. Organs were replaced, and muscle was knitted together with the same type of magic that had murdered Stone Boring. Its torso rapidly began to repair, and then its arm, the white bone of the ponies being reconfigured to new and alien architecture.

As its flesh rebuilt, so did its armor, surrounding the new would with the pieces of the equidroid and the various weapons. It was not just armor, though- -it went deeper, merging with the machines within its own body, permeating the flesh that it built, fusing within it.

It rapidly completed its repairs, forming a strange-colored, five fingered hand, which was rapidly encased in metal. It flexed its new fingers and arm, and then turned its attention toward Cliff Diver, who was still trying to make his way out of the pit without his ability to fly.

“Please!” he said, sliding back down. “I- -I have a- -”

The creature took no mercy. It lowered its arm, and its arm shifted, contorting into a weapon. With a burst of light and a sizzling sound, Cliff Diver’s head burst into slop that rapidly fell around him. The creature had not even needed to use his flesh.

Then it made a sound. Epicenter froze in horror. The sound it produced was heavily distorted, but it was not words- -if anything, it sounded like laughter.

Then she managed to move herself. She dashed across the ground as fast as her short legs could carry her, toward Cliff Diver’s body. She tried not to look at his head, or rather lack of it- -not that in her surge of adrenaline it would have stopped her.

She grabbed his gun and pointed it at the creature. The creature looked down at her and raised its hand. Before Epicenter could figure out how to work the trigger, the creature snapped its fingers, and the gun was gone- -replaced with a bony serpent that somehow seemed horrifyingly spine like.

“No!” cried Epicenter, struggling against the creature that surrounded her, not knowing how it had appeared- -or why a creature that could turn a gun into a snake would have bothered to use living ponies to repair its damaged flesh.

The creature stepped forward, balanced delicately on its two legs.

“No, please!” she cried. “I don’t want to die!”

A blade extended from one of its wrists, one that seemed to be crawling with something. With its other hand, it reached down, picking her up by her neck, lifting her to eye height. As she choked and gasped, she stared into its face- -and saw that the flat helmet was not entirely opaque. Behind the part that produced the illusion of glowing eyes, something was moving through the semi-transparency of the plate. Something deformed and broken- -something with a wide, toothless smile.

Then she felt the blade in her chest, and looked down to see blood pouring down across her white coat. As soon as she saw it, she passed out. The last thing she remembered before consciousness fully left her, she remembered hitting the ground.

Slowly, Epicenter opened her eyes. She hurt all over, and wondered if she had been lying on her sheets again. Except, somehow, she was cold, and her mattress felt so hard.

Confused, she looked around, trying to find her alarm clock, and winced at the pain of moving. Then, as she turned, she suddenly screamed. The burnt stump of Cliff Diver’s neck brought her back to reality, forcing the memories that her sleeping brain had tried to forget back into crystalline focus.

“No no no!” she screamed, pulling herself away from their mutual pool of blood, leaving bits of her coat in the dried, red-brown pool beneath her. Just moving, though, was painful, and she recalled that she had been stabbed.

In terror, she looked down at her chest, and saw that it did indeed have a gaping wound- -but not one that bled. Instead, it was simply open, and badly inflamed. It was clearly infected, and Epicenter could see almost linear black lines spreading form it just beneath her skin. Somehow, though, she was still alive.

There was something else she noticed as well. Farther down, something on her coat was different before. At first, she had tried to dismiss it as blood- -but she could not. She turned her rump, and looked down at her new cutie mark: a bright red “0”.

Then she burst into uncontrollable sobbing. They were dead- -all dead. She had watched them die, for no clear reason- -and she had somehow survived. She looked back at the only body that was remaining and screamed, the sobbing returning once again.

“His- -family,” she choked, her mind confused. Then she suddenly stopped. She remembered how the creature had momentarily looked toward her village, as if it had understood that something was there.

“I- -have to warn them,” she said, standing. It was tremendously painful, and the sobs seemed to want to return so desperately, but her sense of duty overwhelmed them and let her force both of those aspects deep within herself. She was the last of the militia- -and she had to warn her friends and family.

Chapter 3: Distortion

View Online

Ponies were not evolved to properly use machines. It was something obvious to everypony, and something that had been studied endlessly by scholars for centuries, if not millennia. They were a species with no fingers, forced to manipulate their world with their teeth or hooves. Of them, only the unicorns had any real dexterity through the use of their magic- -and yet equines had still become the dominant, tool-using race of Equestria, forcing out much more evolutionarily suited groups- -some to complete extinction.

The academic analysis of this odd course of events was something Five had given a great deal of thought to, but whenever she needed to repair something, it was her main source of complaint. Although she possessed the ability to use magic, she was not a true unicorn- -or, since she had wings, an alicorn- -and her magic was extremely limited in its use. It could not be used to hold a tool or pull apart delicate screws, or to fuse components of microcircuitry and precision optic pumps. Since she had purchased an early model decades back, she had become heavily reliant on the manipulator gauntlets she wore- -which, as fate would have it, were the things that most often broke.

She looked at bent remnant of her left gauntlet, and then took a tiny screwdriver in her mouth and opened the panels, accessing the internal components. Whatever she had been hit with- -a heavy iron bar, she surmised- -had hit sideways, taking her arm and shattering the mechanical side of the device. Thankfully, the computer module and interface were still functional.

So she sat on a log, her work lit by firelight as she rapidly changed tools and expertly repaired her equipment. She was, of course, painfully aware of the iron of what she was doing. Technically, she could have used her magic to restore machine. It would only have taken a few seconds to flood the broken machine with Order, forcing it back into its original configuration. Five simply did not want to, though. She abhorred using her magic, except when absolutely necessary. Rebuilding flesh was one thing, because there was no other way to heal it- -but machines were different. For those, she chose to use her own hoofs and skills instead of magic.

There was a musical call as Philomena descended from the darkness, landing gracefully on one of the other logs that Five had supplied around the fire.

“Hello,” said Five, not looking up as she gently pried open a microservo. As soon as it was open, she turned toward the phoenix. Philomena was, indeed, an impressive bird, her body covered with orange and red feathers that seemed to glow from within. “You did well today,” said Five. She reached into her bag, fishing past the bits of repair equipment, ammunition, and samples that she had not yet added to the Pocket’s inventory. She drew out a container. “Not like Gell. You did what I asked. Warned me, then waited. Let me fight my own battles.”

The bird looked at the container with feigned disinterest, knowing fully well what was inside it. Five held the can far away from her face and twisted the lid. She tried to hold her breath against the powerful stench, but it still found its way into her nostrils and made her eyes water and her stomach churn.

“Here,” she gasped, withdrawing one of the warty, contorted red fruit. She threw it to Philomena, who caught it in her beak and immediately began to tear it apart, revealing the bright yellow flesh within.

“I know not how you eat them,” said Five, resealing the container. She actually did; like all birds, Philomena was simply not sensitive to capsaicin, and therefore not bothered by the spice of hot peppers.

Five returned to her work, and heard another more annoyed squawk from Philomena.

“I will do it when I am done,” she said, extending a probe from her remaining gauntlet and testing the circuitry.

Philomena released another squawk, this one louder.

“Fine, fine!” said Five, dropping what she was doing and reaching back into her bag. “Just do not breath that pepper gas on me. I hate that smell.”

She moved her hand through the bag and removed a square, box-like container. She popped open the lid and poured out one of the objects contained onto the stump she was using as a table, being careful not to get it into the wires and fiberoptics. It was a hoof-sized cube of white, jiggly material.

Five replaced the container in her bag and picked up the cube. It shook in her hoof, as if with anticipation, and she took a bite of it. It was absolutely flavorless, without any real texture.

“See,” she said. “I do eat.”

Although she would not admit it, of course, Philomena was correct. The flavorless cube of synthetic nutrients was astoundingly delicious, and Five immediately felt less irritable.

Five paused from her work and nibbled on her nutrient cube for a moment, staring at the flames before her. The soil in this particular area was unusual in composition, and lent itself to producing trees that burned far darker and more red than normal.

Amused by the fire, she set down her cube and stepped forward. Without any hesitation, she plunged her left foreleg into the fire. She watched as the hair immediately singed, and felt the pain as her flesh burned- -and still she held it there. She watched as her skin split and charred and smoked, and as her blood and muscle boiled and sizzled. The smoke from the fire smelled much like cooking meat.

Then the pain stopped. The nerves had died, and Five pulled out her leg. It had become thinner, and was charred and pink, leaking fluid and smoking. It was covered in significant third and fourth degree burns. Philomena sat beside her, occasionally taking bites from her pepper, only watching.

Almost without her control, blue sparks suddenly surged across the broken skin. The Order permeated her cells, feeding on their entropy and reanimating them, reconnecting what had been broken. For a moment, Five watched as magic battled thermodynamics and handily won. In seconds, her limb had been fully restored. She flexed her elbow and returned to her seat.

“Sometimes I wonder,” she said, “how a body such as this can even exist.” She paused. “Or rather, should it.”

Philomena said nothing, but stared back at Five, as if understanding, or at least trying to.

“It’s backward,” continued Five. “Gunfire, lasers, plasma, flame, knives, beatings, poison- -none of them can kill me, at least not with ease.” She turned to the phoenix. “And that is ironic, when you consider what will kill me. Hence the inversion.”

She picked up her cube of food and finished it, then went back to work. She imagined that Gell would have had something to say, even if it was just another perverse wisecrack, had she been present around the fire. She was not, of course. Like always, she had returned to the Pocket.

Like most things in their lives, it was another irresolvable issue between the two. They simply could not understand each other’s views. Gell saw no reason to stay outside at night. Even though she was nearly indestructible, she hated extremes in temperature and especially rain. As such, she spent as much time in the Pocket. She had even designated one of the many subbasements as her own, filling it with a pool of broken glass that she slept in and shelves containing various “specimens” that she chose to surround herself with. Gell, as numerous arguments with Five had shown, simply could not understand Five’s desire to stay outside.

Likewise, Five could not even bear the thought of staying inside the Pocket. In all technical regards, it was well stocked and livable. Great care had been taken in its construction; it was complete with an atmosphere and low radiation levels. It had even been decorated- -mostly by Three- -to resemble a kind of building on the inside, complete with rooms. Five, personally, would have just left it hollow, like a warehouse.

There was something wrong with it, though. It was difficult to articulate, but the idea of existing in an artificial parallel dimension terrified her. The very idea that the exterior walls had nothing on the other side made her shiver. It was certainly a good place to store materials or equipment, or even to perform certain specialized work- -but to actually live in such a place was unfathomable.

Philomena seemed to agree, as did all ponies who Five had encountered who had ever used a Pocket, even the wizards responsible for their construction. Only demons, it seemed, were comfortable within. Five hypothesized, because of that, that the reason why mortals rejected the Pocket was a factor of them possessing a soul. Demons, unlike ponies, birds, or really anything in Equestria, had no souls, at least not in the sense that ponies did.

Which was not to say they had no souls. They had one, shared amongst them all: the soul of Satin Veil. It was what single, immortal soul that gave them their unique durability and limited use of magic. It was also the reason why partial demons, though large, were so weak- -they lacked the blessing of Satin. Which, Five figured, probably meant that they would reject existing in a Pocket for prolonged periods as well. She wondered if there was a way to test it.

As she was pondering, something caused her to shiver. She looked up to the sky, but saw nothing- -but she had felt something, something that perhaps only she was able to. It was quiet and distant, like somepony dropping a wrench in a distant, dark cavern- -but she had felt Order.

“Did you feel that?” she said to Philomena. “No, of course you did not.”

Five too a moment to snap her manipulator back together and slid it onto her hoof. She felt the system integrate to her arm, and flexed the claw-fingers. They were now working properly, with full functionality. She projected a hologram to display the results of an intermediate-level scan. Machines, of course, could not detect Order except in tremendous quantities or with only the most expensive of reader-tubes, but Five wanted to check anyway.

“Wait,” she said. She scrolled through the readings, trying to confirm what she was seeing. “That isn’t right…”

She reached into her bags and searched once again, but did not find what she needed. Five sighed, and instead pulled out a round, wheel-like handle. If she did not have her scanner extensions in her bags, they must have still been in inventory.

Five stepped back from the fire toward the border of the dark woods, momentarily pausing to look down from the high cliffs down over the remnants of the Ponyville, admiring the long-abandoned Palace of Friendship from a poetic distance.

Then she returned to her task. She held the handle vertically and pressed the button in the center, locking it into place. An internal light that normally glowed red shifted to violet, signifying that the connection was successful. Five spun the metal wheel. It was resistant at first, but then started to move more freely.

Once it had reached an adequate point, she pulled it open. Space hissed and made a characteristic rending sound as a door that had previously not existed was pulled open, leading deep into the Pocket.

Five poked her head into the black void that had suddenly appeared out of the air. She reached in for the light switch, trying to feel for it, but could not find it. One side-effect of Three’s construction of the Pocket was that the door was not locked in place- -it appeared at random within the Pocket when it was summoning. It was terribly annoying, but Five did not know how to change that setting.

“Gell,” she called into the darkness, trying to do so quietly as not to attract predators from the Forest. “Gell, get out here!”

There was no response. Five took a deep breath. “Bluntforce Gelding!” she cried.

Gell’s face suddenly appeared from the darkness, approaching so quickly that their noses booped.

“My ears are bigger than yours,” she said, brushing shards of broken glass from her coat. Five saw Gell was not wearing her armor; she was completely naked. “I heard you the first time.”

“Do you need to…um…add clothing?”

“No, no,” said Gell sarcastically, pushing Five aside and stepping into the firelight. “I’ll just wake up and step out here, my vulnerable, naked, virgin body to the elements.”

“I was not aware that you were a virgin,” said Five, closing the door behind her.

Gell looked over her shoulder, one eyebrow raised. “I’m a five-century old demon,” she said. “I was joking. Do you have any idea how many mares I’ve slain?”

“I would rather not know.”

“There was this one time when Three and I- -”

“No, no!” said Five, flattening her hears against her head with her hoof. “Three was my grandmother I do not want to know!”

“Well then, tell me why you got me out here in the middle of the…um…day?”

“It is night,” said Five. “Did not I purchase you a watch?”

Gell gestured to herself. “Naked,” she said.

“Fine,” said Five. “Just so you know, I’m naked as well. Look.” She turned her rump and lifting her tail with her claw.

“Oh, come on,” said Gell, turning her head away and covering her eyes. “You’re like my daughter or something. I do not need to see that!”

“Then pay attention,” said Five, returning to her normal direction. She displayed her hologram, enlarging it, showing to both Gell and Philomena. “Do you realize what this means?”

Gell frowned, and then turned her own rump toward Five, gesturing toward her cutie mark. “Special talent: testicular carnage,” she said. “Not testicular wizardry…hmm…”

“Focus,” said Five. “The base scan indicates dimensional oscillation. Not far from here. At this very moment, a reaction is being catalyzed.”

“So?”

“So, we need to go see what it does.”

“Why?”

Five sighed. “Because who knows what it could mean? What we may see?”

“The last time we followed something you picked up on that…thing…we had to fight a leviathan. And aren’t you supposed to be collecting skulls?”

“It was a dwarf leviathan,” corrected Five. “And I only drowned twice. As for the skulls, they can wait. The good thing about profit-motivated work is that it does not matter if it is completed. Assuming I die in failing it, I suppose.”

“How optimistic. Can I go back to bed?”

“No. Help me get the large scanning unit.”

Gell sighed, but followed Five back into the Pocket. Although she was tired, it was also clear that she had become curious, if only slightly.

Chapter 4: Airlift

View Online

The engines of the craft hummed beneath, its enchanted gravity projectors whirring with magical energy. Above, there was light, and figures moving in the dim haze. Epicenter stared upward, watching them. Distantly, she could hear them speaking urgently, and could feel them inserting needles into her veins, trying to mediate the shock that was consuming what remained of her life force.

There was nothing they could do to help her, though. The pain from the infection in her chest was now a distant memory compared to the pain in her heart. The things she had seen- -no pony was meant to see them.

It had left no survivors. Not one pony had survived. By the time Epicenter had managed to get back, to pilot the unfamiliar rover over the rough terrain, she could barely walk- -but she had, from the moment she had awoken, sensed that something was wrong.

Then she saw the streets. Every building had been cut open, split by unknowable magic and energy beams. Epicenter was vagually aware that some pieces had been taken, especially from the reactor- -but she hardly cared.

Lining the streets were the ponies that had ventured from underground, believing that it was safe. They seemed to have tried to run- -only to have their bodies torn apart, their blood and organs splattered on the buildings.

She should have run. That was the correct thing to do- -to turn and run, to go so far that she could never come back- -but she had not been able to. Instead, she had ventured into the underground chambers, hoping that the bunkers meant to withstand atomic blast might have protected at least some ponies within.

They had not. The doors had been pulled open from within, the ponies inside converted into a relatively homogenous blood soup, their skulls and shattered bones still visible, some with eyes that stared blankly back at them.

Upon returning to the surface, Epicenter had done nothing but vomit. She had even been too shocked to weep- -and a sudden sign of motion filled her with a joy greater than anything she could have imagined. It had only been a badly damaged half of an equidroid, pulling itself across the street on its one remaining leg, but Epicenter had reacted to it as though it were a living pony, rushing to its side.

The AI of the village may have been a machine, but she was also a pony- -and she had survived. From her words, it seemed that her internal core had suffered massive damage, but she had managed to summon a medical evacuation vessel and the frontier defense force.

It was at that time that Epicenter looked up- -and for some reason, her eyes were drawn to the edge of the village, where it was watching. The strange bipedal creature, its armor now larger and more aggressive, watching. The AI had been blinded and could not see it, but Epicenter could- -but worse, she could almost hear it. At the distance, it would have been impossible, even if it were screaming- -but she heard something. Words in a language that she could not possibly comprehend.

Then, slowly, it turned and walked off- -and Epicenter realized the pattern through her former village. All the destruction followed a straight line. It had not passed through each bunker, slaying ponies while she lay in a pool of her own blood- -it had simply walked, destruction following in its wake. It had stopped for noting- -nothing except her.

At that point, she collapsed. Her body refused to move, and her mind to operate. She was awake and conscious, but there was nothing within her. She saw as the defense force dropped in- -heavily armored ponies and unicorns, as well as heavy equidroids and several griffon contractors. While they searched the village for survivors, the medical evacuation airship arrived. Soldiers and mercenaries approved its landing, and it descended. The Pegasi doctors rushed out and attended to Epicenter, taking her into it, beginning the operation.

“Ow, road apples,” cried one of the doctors, momentarily bringing Epicenter back to reality.

“Doctor?”

“It cut me!”

“Get a bandage on that,” ordered an authoritative voice as a tall ahuizotl came into view. “Do not contaminate my patient.”

“There is a foreign body in her chest.”

“Get me a scanning device,” ordered the lead doctor.

“But sir, we need to remove it- -”

“And if it is in her aorta? Do you wish her to bleed to death?”

“N- -no,” said the younger doctor, handing over the scanning device. The ahuizotl manipulated it expertly in his hands- -and Epicenter suddenly cried out, throwing back one of the ponies near her.

“What is happening?”

“She was catatonic- -I don’t- -”

“The hands!” cried Epicenter, her mind flashing. Where there was a tall red-coated ahuizotl, she suddenly saw a taller armored figure reaching toward her, its eyes glowing over a face that had never once been exposed to air- -five long fingers, reaching toward her.

“Holder her down!” ordered the figure.

“I can’t!” cried a nurse. “She pulled out her IV!”

Epicenter felt several pricks in the side of her neck, but only resisted harder. “The hands! Don’t let it touch me! Get away!”

“It’s not working!” cried a distant voice.

“Give me that,” said another. The part of Epicenter’s mind that was still sane saw the ahuizotl take a weapon from a confused guard and extend a pair of sparking probes from the end. As the other ponies held Epicenter down, he jammed it into her neck.

She felt herself suddenly seize as her body tightened, flailing uncontrollably. Something inside her chest began to heat and burn, and things crackled and popped within her. The world flashed with beautiful colors- -and then faded to so much red, and finally black.

Chapter 5: Taste of Rainbow

View Online

Gell attempted to push her way through the trees, following An deeper into the forest. She was not happy- -in part, because she was extremely tired and hungry. More than anything, she craved sustenance- -not the putrid excrement that ponies called “food”, but real food. As in meat. She salivated as she thought of how it would taste to devour the freshest cuts of mutton or beef.

The forest also annoyed her. She did not like walking through trees and mud, simply because she was no adapted for it. Tartarus was a rocky, empty place. Demons were not meant to fit through tight spaces or to stand in any sort of liquid that they could potentially sink in.

An had no trouble with the trees- -in part because she could fly, and also because she had inherited her mother’s agility, which allowed her to move rapidly between the trees, even if she was weighed down with heavy scanning equipment.

“Where are we going?” demanded Gell.

“Toward the signal,” said An, not bothering to look back. Her voice was exactly the same as each of her predecessors; even after five incarnations, Gell still had not gotten used to that feature- -or the fact that they all looked identical. Looking at Five was like looking at so many dead friends.

“I know,” said Gell. “I mean geographically.”

“Outside Ponyville by ten miles.”

“Ten miles? By Satin, mare, are you trying to kill me?”

“Are you saying you are unable to walk?”

“No. Just that I don’t like to.” She grunted as she tried to pass through a pair of trees, only to find the gap to be too narrow, trapping her. “Satin bless it- -I hate trees!” She slammed her hoof into one of the trees, shattering its truck and sending its shards flying backward.

“Trees are good,” said An, stopping to turn herself and orient herself to the large and convoluted hologram that was projected in front of her. The mobile scanning dish on her back swiveled and creaked. “Trees make oxygen. Do not hurt the trees.”

“Demons don’t ‘breathe’. And I will hurt what I please.”

“I don’t actually care,” said An, walking in a slightly different direction.

Gell smiled. “An, I haven’t seen you this excited in years.”

“This is…well, I cannot say it is what I live for, but I do enjoy this sort of thing.”

“Really.” Gell sighed. Generations of serving at the side of soldiers, mages, and conquerors, she was now helping a filly with a science project. “Are you sure you can’t direct some of that will into, you know, your job?”

“And what job would that be?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” said Gell sarcastically. “Like, just maybe, protecting Equestria from evil, perhaps?”

“A demon telling me to fight evil,” said An, smiling, looking back toward Gell with her big, blue eyes. “That amuses me.”

“It was a serious question.”

An turned back to her work, still smiling, pausing only to use her bizarre mechanical claws to adjust something. “It is called moral relativism. There is really no difference between good and evil, except that falsely derived from perspective. Fighting the evil of one does evil unto another.”

“You are so, so unlike your mother,” said Gell. “It is refreshing, really- -and unbelievably infuriating.”

Gell felt something on her head, and felt Philomena landing and promptly crawling under the neck-fringe of her armor. That could only mean one thing.

“An, it had better not rain while I am out here.”

An passed through the trees, flying over a hedgerow and into an oddly clear spot in the forest. It appeared artificial in nature. The rusted remnants of a tower nearby seemed to indicate that it may once have been a place for docking airships, or a runway of sorts. It was now heavily over grown with trees and shrubs, but at least they were small and the ground was dry and rocky.

“Some atmospheric disturbance may be expected,” said An. She turned around an approached Gell, taking down a piece of equipment from her back- -not the whole thing, but the interface for it. She plugged it into her own equipment. She walked in circles for a moment, allowing the cord to trail behind her, and then pointed at a spot on the ground. “Here,” she said. “Or somewhere within a mile of here.”

“What? What is so critical about this Satin-forsaken spot?”

“A disturbance,” said An, stepping back, motioning for Gell to do the same.

“That is what you keep saying, but it’s not helpful. It’s like walking into a butcher’s shop and asking for meat…delicious meat…”

“Oscillations,” said An, as excitedly as she could. “Or, more appropriately, reactive resonance. A few hours ago, I detected a surge in Order.”

“Order? Does anypony use Order magic anymore?”

“Nopony ever did, save for me and, well, mes. I doubt even Thebe knows how. But that’s not the point.”

“A sudden spike in a rare form of magic doesn’t matter?”

“Of course not. Well, maybe on a global scale, but no to me. The point is that Order is delicate. A change creates a ripple effect through the entire Forest, producing changes on a variable scale that are incalculable.”

“Where did you even learn these word? I sure as There didn’t teach you.”

“One of the results of this,” said An, sounding somewhat annoyed, “is that things happen. Distortions, disruptions, changes.”

“And you just walked over to one of these ‘distortions’?”

“Yes,” said An, checking her gauntlet hologram again and turning back to watch the spot she had chosen. “Who knows what could happen?”

“Then why are we the only ones here? Wouldn’t Thebe kind of be interested in this sort of thing?”

“She has better things to do than to deal with meteorological disturbances.”

“Meteorological?! You dragged me all the way out here to see weather?” Several chilling droplets splashed onto her head, and she heard the sound of thunder in the distance. “And not it is raining. You know how much I loathe water. There is no water in Tartarus, you know, because the stuff is evil.”

“It is not evil. It is wet.”

The rain came down harder, soaking Gell thoroughly. An did not seem to mind, even as the water saturated her already close-cut blue main and fluffy blue tail. Gell, however, was extremely displeased, as was Philomena, who twisted deeper against her armor trying to hide from the droplets.

“Come on, An,” said Gell. “I’m going to- -”

“Look!” said An, pointing. Gell did, and to her surprise, she actually saw something. She had been expecting something more in line with the abstract, meaningless junk that An usually appreciated- -but this time, she actually saw space starting to bend.

“An,” said Gell, nervously. “When you say you don’t know what will happen…”

An typed furiously on her holo-pad, trying to do calculations as rapidly as possible. “No idea,” she giggled. An giggling was an absolutely terrifying sound. “It could curdle the air itself, or open a hole to the Beyond and suck us out- -or just collapse with the force of a neutron bomb!”

“Um, two of those things are bad, An…”

The universe suddenly shifted in that localized spot, the air itself seeming to pull backward into itself as a strange light poured through the heavy rain.

“Come on,” said An. “Come on, please be something valuable and- -”

There was a tremendous exploxion that knocked An backward into Gell, and the universe tore open- -not on the ground, where An had been looking, but above, forming a portal. Gell never had a chance to see what was on the other side, because it snapped closed almost as soon as it opened. Something shot out so fast that it saturated both of them in a rainbow cloud, and whatever came out left a long rainbow contrail behind it as it rocketed down the clear runway into the distance.

The disturbance closed as quickly as it started. An slowly looked up at Gell, and Gell down at her. Then they both slowly turned to the distance where the rainbow-trailing object had gone.

“Shall we retrieve it?” asked An, although they both already knew the answer.

Five followed the trail of charred earth, Gell following close behind her. Whatever had come out of the distortion had been ejected at several times the speed of sound, but in the excitement Five had hardly noticed her eardrums rupturing. They had since repaired, and the rain had washed away the blood that had dribbled out of her ears- -but it also seemed to have quenched the fires that followed the unidentified object, making the trail somewhat difficult to follow.

“How far do you think it could have gone?” asked Gel. Five looked back at her; the demon looked nearly comical- -and dangerously angry- -with her present wetness. Five felt bad for forcing this on her, but actually found it strange that Gell had not already left. That was usually something she did.

“Not far,” said Five, stepping over a fragment of charred metal. “It had a rapidly decaying trajectory. Even if it didn’t, it would just imbed itself in a hill somewhere.”

“Oh, look!” said Gell, suddenly pointing and running forward. Five was confused; she had not gained a perfect understanding of its decent, but she knew that it would still be several hundred feet away. As she looked, however, she saw that something was, indeed, lying in their path.

She approached it cautiously, but Gell did not. Ignoring the rain, the pink demon ran to it and picked it up. “Score,” she said, than, turning to An, defensively, “mine!”

Five looked up at the piece of debris, and, to her mild surprise, saw that it was not a piece of metal as she expected. It was the pale blue severed leg of a pony.

“Finally,” said Gell, turning the ragged, red end of the leg toward her face and shoving it into her mouth, tearing pieces of its flesh out and swallowing them greedily. “Ohhhh…so meaty….”

“Don’t eat that,” said Five, examining a short, blood-spattered tree near where the limb had landed. “You have no idea where it’s been.”

Gell pointed to her wet, blood-stained face. “Does this look like the expression of a pony who cares?”

“No,” said Five, walking past her and continuing to follow the trail of burned grass- -and now blood. She wondered why they had found a leg; it seemed a strange object to locate in the wilderness- -especially a blue leg.

Gell followed behind an, the sound of the bones crunching in her several rows of teeth as she enjoyed her meal. It was an annoying sound, but at least it meant that Gell was finally getting fed. For some reason, the only food she would accept was meat- -and even then, generally only meat from sentient creatures.

“I have always wondered,” said Five, meandering along the trail, looking for things that might have fallen out of the object- -despite finding a leg, she was still under the impression that it was some kind of machine. Any pony traveling at that speed would have lost far more than a leg; Five assumed that it had been left from one of the many pony-eating monsters that inhabited the Forest, perhaps dragged from the mining colony forty miles to the south. “What does pony taste like?”

“You want some?” asked Gell, offering the remainder of the limb. She had already eaten half of it.

“No,” said An.

“More for me,” said Gell, taking another large bite. “And actually, it varies.”

“How so?”

“You’ll never believe me, but it actually depends on the cutie mark.”

“You mean the special talent.”

“Yeah. Changes the flavor…I mean, wingers, earties, and one-horns already have distinct flavors, but the mark- -it gives it a whole new dimension. Ponies are, by far, my favorite meat.”

“And how does that one taste?”

Gell took another bite and actually took the time to savor it. “Hmm…a bit like chicken, so this was from a Pegasus. Gamy means probably an athlete. Petite little muscles, though, so probably a female. Shame. An athlete like this would have had an excellent rump.”

Five wondered if Gell would have preferred the rump for food or for other purposes. “And the talent?”

“Spicy, undertones of fruit.”

“What kind of a talent tastes like that?”

“No idea. But it isn’t a bad combination.”

It sounded disgusting to Five, but then again, all food did. She turned her attention back to the trail, and reassessed her initial assessment of the nature of the object. They had reached the point where it had begun to impact, and the ground was stained with blood and bits of skin, as well as blue feathers. Something organic and fleshy had clearly been drawn across the ground at high speed and been torn apart by the impact.

Five followed the trail further, taking her time. The rain was still pouring, a result of the spatial distortion, and lightning was flashing through the sky, illuminating the otherwise dark forest around them, and the trail through it of low brush. She was extremely curious as to what she had just witnessed- -but wanted to savor the feeling of exploration. That, and if something had come through, there was no way to know from where. If it turned out to be alive, in all likelihood, her and Gell would need to do another extermination.

After several minutes, the rain began to slow, and Five reached the point of impact. The object had been driven across the ground horizontally for close to forty feet before finally coming to a stop in a pile of stone and dirt that it had gathered on its landing.

Five moved close and examined it, trying to make sense of the wreckage. She quickly determined that the impossible had, indeed, occurred: the object was- -or rather had been- -a pony. Gell had also been surprisingly correct. Based on the surprisingly intact body, she was female and a Pegasus, although he wings had been shattered by the impact. One of her sides had been completely torn away, removing both legs, but her torso was surprisingly intact. She appeared to be wearing some kind of protective garment, which had been badly damaged on her impact. The shell she wore was sparking and leaking fluid from several engines that resembled a kind of extremely primitive repulsor drive.

“Ohhhh,” moaned Gell. “Look at that- -at least half of it is still good. Maybe I can make jerky- -no, bacon. Nothing like good filly bacon…”

Five only partially listened to Gell babble as her eyes looked over the shattered remains of the mare- -until they froze on her mane. The parts of it that were poking out from beneath her helmet were rainbow colored. Five’s eyes darted to the mare’s tail, and found that it was also rainbow colored- -and then to her cutie mark, something that had miraculously survived. It was a cloud with a rainbow-colored lightning bold emerging from it.

“Gell…” said Five, interrupting Gell’s increasingly lustful list of things she was going to do to the mare. She herself was interrupted when the mare suddenly gasped and coughed, expelling rainwater and blood from her badly damaged mouth.

“Twi…light,” she whispered, trying to move but crying out weakly when she became aware that virtually every bone in her body had been broken. “Oh…Celestia, it hurts, it hurts so much…”

“Did she just talk,” said Gell, suddenly stopping and grimacing in anger. “Satin bless it! Well, then again…An, she’s not going to recover out here. Snap her neck and give her to me.”

Five reached out and grabbed the mare’s head in her claw, forcibly lifting it as she cried out in pain. The face plate on the helmet was badly cracked, but it had at least protected the part of her head that held a brain- -hopefully. Five and the mare momentarily stared into each other’s eyes- -Five’s cold blue meeting the mare’s terrified violet irises. Her face had been mostly crushed, and her jaw hung askew. The humane thing to do would, indeed, have been to have simply given her a little twist and finished her. Five, however, was not known for being humane.

“Gell,” she said. “You were the one bothering me about my ‘job’. I think I am going to make a conscious effort to preserve this one. Could you go to the pocket and fetch a medical kit?”

“What?” cried Gell. “Now you are listening to me? When there is food right there?”

“I will explain later, but I need to act quickly. I need to stabilize her. Get the kit. Now.”

“Ooh, fiery. Finally growing a pair, maybe? Fine. But you owe me a meal.”

Five took the handle out of her pocket and gave it to Gell, who opened the door to the Pocket and disappeared inside.

“Twilight,” said the damaged mare, her head falling slack in Five’s grasp. “Help me…my wings…”

“I am not Twilight Sparkle,” said Five, the instinctive part of her mind confirming what she logically only suspected and knew to be truly impossible. “But if you are truly strong, perhaps I can save you. If not…well, you can join your friends.”

“Wonder…bolts…” said the mare, before lapsing into total unconsciousness.

Chapter 6: Futureshock

View Online

A pony floated through the void. She did not know how she had arrived there, or where she had been before- -or even who she had been before. It seemed to her that she had only ever known the void- -the black, dimensionless space that surrounded her. That blackness was so peaceful, and so calm, as if inviting her to sleep- -but also so very cold.

The worst part was that she was alone. As much as she looked, she could not see anypony else, or hear anypony else- -and no matter how hard she tried to run or fly, she could never move. That terrified her more than anything, because she knew that the darkness was eternal.

Slowly, however, shapes began to resolve. There were two, both ponies, both resolving from the nothingness. They seemed far at first, but they grew closer, until the first pony could see them clearly. Though they were now visible, she recognized neither of them.

One of them was a mare, her coat sickly yellow and her eyes completely blood-red, grinning madly as she spread her massive, divine wings. The other seemed to be covered in dark-colored armor, and no part of its flesh was visible. The first pony could not tell if it was a mare or a stallion, but from its size, she assumed it was a stallion from its size. That pony seemed to be staring through its blank, expressionless mass, its head decorated with three horns.

The pony suddenly felt something reach out and grab her neck, and the two others vanished. She tried to scream, but there was no air in the void, and nothing came out. She tried to escape, but the five-fingered metal hand that grasped her neck was far too strong.

The creature holding her raised her to its eye level, and she was forced to stare into a face that should have belonged to no creature- -a distorted, alien face covered by ephemeral magic and hideous machinery, its eyes replaced with a pair of unnaturally glowing eyes that seemed to stare through her as much as they stared into her.

“Shelath don’korass al viatem,” it hissed, and seemed to draw her closer toward where it was assumed to have a mouth. The pony knew that what it was doing was wrong, that if it managed to take her, the place she would go would be far worse than the void- -even worse than being alone.

Before it could take her, however, she felt something across her chest. She looked down to see a pair of golden forelegs wrapped around her, and out of the corner of her eyes saw a pair of great metallic wings spread behind her. With one great push, the angel that grasped her pulled her away from the demon- -and it simply watched them leave. Its only response was a horrible, perverse sound- -the sound of its laughter.

Rainbow Dash screamed out in pain and bolted upright. She reached up toward her neck, but realized that she was still able to breathe, that there was no demonic alien hand trying to tear away her immortal soul. She gasped and breathed heavily, cold sweat soaking the sheets that covered her.

That gave her pause. She did not recall being in a bed. The last thing she recalled was the descent from the firmament, the unparalleled rush of speed- -and pulling out of the impossible dive, only to activate Twilight’s magical drive system and accelerate even faster.

“What the hay?” she said, looking around. Her voice sounded strange, as if she had not used it for a long time. Looking around, she was in some kind of hospital room. At least, that was what she assumed. There were white lights above her, and a sparse collection of medical equipment around her. The equipment itself all looked a bit odd, but most science-stuff did to her.

She flexed her wings, and winced at the pain. They were still both there, but very sore. If she was in a hospital, it probably meant that she had crashed, but she could not remember doing so. It would not have been the first time she hit hard enough to black out, but if her friends had brought her to the hospital, it must have been pretty messy.

For some reason, she suddenly felt nervous. It was in part because she could not recall this particular hospital- -it seemed ordinary, but it was not the one from Ponyville. She also wondered why none of her friends were at her side, and why she was alone.

She slowly laid back down into the bed and tried to remember. What had happened. The decent, the speed, the rush of unmatched pleasure through her body, the opening of her wings, activating the machines on her body, accelerating- -

- -the pain, the agonizing, horrible pain, worse than anything she had ever experienced. It had been raining, and so dark. She heard voices, and felt something lift her head, which hurt even more. She had heard one voice listing things she could not understand, and found herself staring into a pair of familiar blue eyes.

“No,” she cried out again, bolting up, putting her hooves to her face. Those were not memories she wanted, not things she should have had. If they had been true, then it meant she had come far closer to death than any pony should have been able to- -and still come back.

As she calmed down, she suddenly realized that one of her hooves felt oddly cold against her head. As she focused her eyes on it, she realized that it was also a different color. Confused, she pulled it away from her face- -and gaped at it.

“What the hay?” she shouted, jumping away from what she had before somehow mistaken for her leg. It was not really a leg at all, she saw, but a framework delicate metal and machinery. Pale yellow bones were connected to numerous internal machines terminating in a hoof-like structure, but she could see through most of it, as if somepony had not bothered to put skin on a bizarre model of a leg.

As she tried to pull away, the leg followed her. Looking at where it led, past the complex motorized joints, she saw that it was connected to her, at her shoulder. Panicking, she pulled back the sheet over her- -and saw that there was another one on the same side, designed to look like a narrow mechanical copy of her remaining lower leg.

“My legs- -” she cried, “who- -who took my legs?” She waved her metal arm wildly, as if trying to throw it off- -but it remained attached to her. Panting heavily, Rainbow Dash closed her eyes and tried to focus.

“Okay,” she said. “Calm down, Dash. You’re losing it. What would the commander say if she saw you bugging out over something like this? When I open my eyes, my legs will be fine.”

She opened her eyes, and still saw that the metal devices were still connected to her. The momentary pause had helped, however, because her curiosity had started to overwhelm her initial surprise. She was not becoming aware that the machines connected to her moved and responded just like her normal legs and, even stranger, she could feel them like normal legs as well.

Carefully, she brought the metal fore-hoof to her face, and turned it over, looking at it carefully. Every motion she commanded it to do, it responded perfectly. It did not even feel heavy or unbalanced in any way- -something that an avid flyer like her was acutely attuned to.

She gently reached out with her good hoof and poked the metal one. She giggled, because she really did feel it. She poked it again, harder, and felt it again- -and then gave it a slam.

The metal hoof responded strangely, shifting internally. It adjusted mechanically, and Rainbow Dash squeaked and jumped back as a set of mechanical claws jumped out of its edges.

“Holy Luna,” she said, hiding behind a pillow. She stared at the claws- -and then realized she could move them. “Oh. My. Celestia. Just when I thought I could not possibly get any cooler.”

She looked down at her prosthetic lower leg, and moved it, finding it to respond quite well. She turned and moved to stand up, only to find herself tethered to the bed by a number of wires and tubes.

“Oh,” she said, leaning back. “That can’t be a good sign.”

As she laid back into the bed, finding herself unusually weak and sore but totally awake, a knock came at the door.

“Hel- -hello?” she said, somewhat confused.

“Why am I bothering to knock?” said a voice from the other side. The handle of the door twisted and it was pushed open. A pony stepped in.

Rainbow Dash was struck by how strangely familiar she seemed. The pony who had entered was a petite bat pony- -or “chiropteran” as they preferred to be called- - with a short-cut blue mane and bushy blue tail. She also had a pair of large but oddly blank blue eyes and a crystal cutie mark- -which was surrounded by an odd black stain-like pattern that covered her rump and ran up part of her side.

“Hey, I know you,” said Rainbow Dash. “You’re Cavern Melody’s daughter. Anhelios, right?”

The bat pony’s eyes narrowed. “Yes,” she said, carefully and not at all happily. “My name is Anhelios.” She closed the door gently behind her, and Rainbow Dash saw that she too had metal appendages- -although both of hers were only at the ends of her feet, and only on the front two.

“Anhelios, what happened?” said Rainbow Dash, pointing to her arms. Anhelios looked at the arm she was using to close the door, confused, and then seemed to realize what Rainbow Dash meant.

“Nothing,” she said, reaching down with one claw and removing the metal aspect from her arm, revealing a dark-gray colored hoof beneath. “They are only gloves.”

“Oh,” said Rainbow Dash, looking down at her own limbs with a sigh. “Is…is mine?”

“No,” said Anhelios, standing at Rainbow Dash’s side. “Those are full prosthetics. Quite good ones, actually. Unfortunately, I am only able to properly regenerate my own tissue- -or Gell’s. Those are better than flesh by far, though. Faster reaction time, precision balanced- -designed for professional flyers. You have no idea how many gems I had to vomit to pay for them.”

“What happened to my old ones?” said Rainbow Dash. “I really liked my left legs…”

“They were…um…damaged beyond repair in the crash.”

“Crash?” said Rainbow Dash, looking down at her missing legs. She suddenly felt an overwhelming surge of sadness- -those legs had followed her through her whole life. They had been there when she had first earned her cutie mark with her first sonic rainboom, when she had met Twilight, when she had been inducted into the Wonderbolts just a month ago- -and now they were gone for good.

She still managed to smile, though. “Well. I guess that was a pretty epic crash, then.”

“Indeed,” said Anhelios.

“You know, you can sit down,” said Rainbow Dash, pointing toward a chair.

“I would rather stand,” said Anhelios emotionlessly, “in case in the course of this conversation you attempt to strangle me.”

“No way,” said Rainbow Dash. “Why would I do that? You were the one who saved me, weren’t you?”

“I stabilized you flew you here as fast as I could.”

Something about that explanation did not seem right, but Rainbow Dash was not sure why. Something was wrong. She knew Anhelios in passing- -she had met her at several events involving Princess Luna; Cavern Melody was essentially Luna’s best friend, and Anhelios would usually be at their side, training to one day take her mother’s place. When she was not, Rainbow Dash was distantly aware that she had been attending Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns. That did not explain why she was in this hospital, though, and why her friends were not.

“I have to ask,” said Anhelios, her oddly cold eyes locked on Rainbow Dash’s. “Who exactly are you?”

“Ha! Nice one, An,” said Rainbow Dash. She moved to polish her hoof on her chest in a gesture of feigned arrogance- -only to realize that her real hoof was no longer attached to her. “You know me. We’ve met, like every Harmony Day party. I’m only the best flyer in Equestria!”

“You’re name,” snapped Anhelios.

“R- -Rainbow Dash,” said Rainbow Dash, feeling oddly hurt by Anhelios’s tone.

The bat pony smiled, and Rainbow Dash felt herself recoil. She had forgotten that they had fangs. “I know,” she said.

“Then why did you ask?” demanded Rainbow Dash, annoyed. Something was starting to frighten her more, but she still did not know what.

“Because they did not believe me. The doctors, the nurses. Even Gell. But I could tell. Your body is saturated with Order. I was not initially convinced, but I took bone samples.”

“Wait…what?”

“You’re elemental profile is consistent with a pony who was alive during the fall of Nil. There is no pony you could be beside the…the living Rainbow Dash.”

“Why…why are you saying it like that?” Rainbow Dash laughed hollowly. “You’re kind of freaking me out, An…”

Anhelios’s smile faded. “What is the last thing you remember?”

“I- -” Rainbow Dash searched her mind. “I was flying.” She put her hoof to her head, momentarily ignoring the fact that it was metal. “No. It was a test. Something I came up with. Twilight had invented a new machine, a magicy gizmo- -”

“A kinetic repulsion drive,” corrected Anhelios.

“Maciy gizmo, yeah. She said that if it was given enough of a boost, it could make a pony go fast. Not faster than sound…I can already do that…but faster than light.”

“You were attempting a quantum-celestial acceleration,” said Anhelios in disbelief.

“Yeah!” said Rainbow Dash, pointing at Anhelios with one of her mechanical fingers. “Twilight didn’t want me to, at first, but I convinced her, because I’m the only pony who could have pulled it off.”

“You actually failed.”

“What?” Rainbow Dash suddenly felt defensive; she never failed at anything.

“The theories did not exist back then,” said Anhelios, “but if you had succeeded, you would have produced a seventh-dimensional rainbow. It would have killed everypony within viewing distance.”

“Are they- -are they alright?”

Anhelios paused, and seemed to choose her words carefully. “They all survived that incident,” she said, slowly. “But you may have encountered something truly remarkable…”

“What? Because I am,” she gestured to her body, which was covered in a rump-less hospital gown, “quite remarkable.”

“Are you aware of relativity?”

“What, like brothers?”

“No. Not relatives. And you do not have any brothers. It is the theory that as objects approach the speed of light, they actually move slower.”

“That’s stupid,” said Rainbow Dash.

“Not slower physically, of course. Slower through time. But that is not what you did. You came so close- -in fact, you may have actually exceeded it, if just for an infinitesimal- -you actually jumped forward in time itself. Perfectly preserved, even after all these years. Well, you were. Then you landed, and cost me several pounds of vomit to pay to get you reassembled.”

“Um, in words,” said Rainbow Dash.

“Those are words!” snapped Anhelios. “I knew that you were a bit dense, but even foals understand the mathematics behind that sort of thing.”

“They do?”

“No, of course not. Don’t be dense. If you can help it.” She calmed herself. “Do you understand the gist of what I am saying?”

“Not a lick.”

“You traveled so fast, time around you slowed down, and you…jumped. I guess an analogy would be like skipping a rock on a pond.”

“So…I went forward in time?”

“Yes. Without even realizing it.”

“Cool,” said Rainbow Dash, smiling, sitting up and pumping her remaining foreleg in a silent cheer. “So cool! Nopony’s ever gone that fast! Oh, wow, when Twilight hears about this, she’ll freak. An the Wonderbolts- -I’m sure to get promoted for this! I might even get a statue!”

“This is the part where you try to strangle me.”

“Why? I could not possibly be happier. I mean, this is completely epic!”

“Do you know how far forward you jumped?”

Rainbow Dash paused. She had not considered that. “Well…a few minutes? An hour?” She grinned widely. “No, don’t tell me it was a whole day.”

“Four hundred forty seven years, three months, eighteen days, five hours thirty seven minutes and…” she projected a magical image from one of her gauntlets and checked a readout in a language that Rainbow Dash could not read. “Twenty seven seconds.”

The smile faded from Rainbow Dash’s face. Then, it came back as she laughed. “Oh, An! Come on, my ribs are sore like crazy! But you did get me on that one!”

“You’re reaction is…amusing,” said Anhelios. She was not laughing, nor was she smiling at all.

“Come on, how long was it? And where are Twilight and the others? I bet I really gave them such a scare!” she laughed again, thinking of the looks that must have been on their faces when she “jumped time”.

Anhelios adjusted her projection, and pressed a claw against it. “Nurse,” she said. “Could you come in here for a moment?”

“Right away,” said a voice from somepony that Rainbow Dash could not see.

Anhelios paused for a moment, and then there was another knock on the door.

“Nurse?” said Rainbow Dash, confused but still smiling. “What, is she a fan? I think I can sign one autograph, especially if…”

Her voice trailed off as the door opened. Her mind could momentarily not comprehend what had stepped through the door, and had consequently frozen.

It looked like a pony, at least in shape. It was the same size and shape, at least- -but it was not a pony. Rainbow Dash’s mind at first saw it as wearing some kind of armor, made of white and red plastic- -but then she saw that there was no flesh beneath the joints, just shiny metal machinery.

It did not even have a real face- -instead, it had been assembled into something skeletal that could not possibly be a mask, complete with modeled teeth. It had no real eyes, but rather a white visor that crossed where eyes should have been.

“Nurse,” said Anhelios. “My associate would like to know the full specifications of her new components.”

“Of course,” said the nurse, nodding. She passed close to Rainbow Dash, who only stared in awe at something that, if it was a pony, was extremely out of place.

The nurse picked up an object on Rainbow Dash’s end table using a set of claws that protruded from her hoof- -even though it was not really a hoof, but rather a set of long, dexterous claws joined tighter only as high as her elbow. Watching it pull apart to grasp the object made Rainbow Dash ill.

The nurse handed Rainbow Dash something that resembled a small, thin book. Rainbow Dash hesitated, and then understood that she was meant to take it. As she did, one of the magical projections appeared over it.

“These are detailed specifications,” said the nurse. She sounded so cheerful, but also so very empty. “In summary, you have been equipped with a front and rear leg from Rarity Corp. prosthetics division. This is the ThunderRend precision model, intended for heavy use by professional flyers. It is complete with dynamic balancing and full manual nervous reaction for orthotropic functions. It is also equipped with several manipulator features, all of lightweight alloy. Plating will be applied on departure.

“Your bone structure has also been largely replaced with ultralight synthetic alloy, and you have been equipped with a semi-cybronic heart from CellFresh Industries. Pumping volume and response will be improved marginally to moderately.”

“That is fine,” said Anhelios as Rainbow dash clutched her chest, for the first time noticing one of many almost imperceptible surgical scars that ran through her coat. “Thank you, nurse.”

“Not a problem,” she said. “The doctor will be returning in a few minutes to assess the patient, and prepare her for discharge.”

She nodded- -or possibly bowed, and departed the room, the machines within her body making minute whines as she moved. Anhelios waved, and then turned back to Rainbow Dash.

Rainbow Dash watched her leave, and watched the door close. She waited for several seconds, hoping that her brain would catch up and produce a nice, logical solution. It did not. “What…was that?” she said, slowly turning to Anhelios.

“She was an equidroid.”

“Which is…?”

“An artificial pony. Made out of metal and plastic, with a mind programmed by…well, I actually don’t know. Probably another program.”

“You mean a robot? Like in a comic book?”

“Yes…but avoid calling them that, you will get punched.”

“Robot…”

“This entire facility is staffed by them,” said Anhelios. “The doctor that rebuilt you- -I believe his name is Iron Lung- -is one. Now, if I recall history, the first of these were not born until…three hundred years ago? One hundred fifty years after you…departed?”

Rainbow Dash remembered what she had been laughing about before- -and the feelings of humor and disbelief started to crack. Behind them was a wall of panic and desperation, one she had been feeling distantly since she had arrived, as if she had always understood that something was profoundly wrong with her location.

“But…but…no, you’re lying!”

“I do lie a lot. But not now.”

“But you look the same! You would be, like, old! Really old!”

“Firstly, we do not age. Second, I am the Fifth of my line. The Anhelios you knew was my great great grandmother. Also, tangentially, I hate being called Anhelios. It is the name I was given, but not mine. You will call me Five.”

“But- -but- -” Rainbow Dash’s mind was reeling, trying to understand the implications of what she was being told. She rose and struggled against the probes on her body, pulling one out. To her horror, a long metal needle connected to the end extended several inches into her side and left a bloody circular hole on withdrawal. She ignored it, though. “My friends- -I have to get to my friends- -”

“They are dead,” said Anhelios, causing Rainbow Dash to stop pulling. Rainbow Dash looked into the bat pony’s eyes, and saw that somehow, Anhelios was enjoying this.

“Dead? They can’t be dead. They just can’t!”

“Rainbow Dash. It has been four hundred fifty years. Ponies just don’t live that long.”

In her heart, Rainbow Dash knew it to be true. It only made sense- -even the oldest of ponies only lived to one hundred or so, unless they were alicorns.

“Wait!” she said, smiling. “Twilight!” she turned to Anhelios, a fragment of her hope renewed. “Twilight! She’s an alicorn- -they live forever! She could still be…” Rainbow Dash trailed off. She saw the expression on Anhelios’s face, and already knew the answer.

“Twilight Sparkle is dead.”

“But, she’s an alicorn- -how could she die? How could she…” Leave me, were the next words she wanted to say, but could not bring herself too. They had all left her, and her mind was still unable to grasp it.

Anhelios shook her head. “Not yet,” she said.

“What do you mean ‘not yet’?” shouted Rainbow Dash angrily. She reached out to grab Anhelios, to force her to talk, but the bat pony simply stepped backward.

“Rainbow Dash, I have just informed you that any friends and family you had are long dead. Do you really desire to know how each of them died?”

“Yes,” she said, stubbornly.

“Well, I will tell you, but not now. I cannot have you lapsing into intractable depression.”

“Why the hay not?” she screamed. “If what you’re telling me is true, I- -” She screamed in rage and threw the reader device in her hoof onto the ground. “Everything was going so good. I was a Wonderbolt- -I had just become a Wonderbolt! My friends were there with me, and we were happy! And now…” Something linked in her mind, a consideration that she had not considered before. Her eye widened as her self-pity evaporated. “My friends,” she said, turning to Anhelios. “If I’m here, then…then I wasn’t there.”

Anhelios nodded, understanding. “History records…well….”

“Tell me,” demanded Rainbow Dash.

“You were assumed to die that day. Engineering analysis suggested that one of the magical shields protecting you degraded on atmospheric reentry. The assumption- -which now seems to be incorrect- -was that the sudden air resistance vaporized you. There was an explosion, but no body was ever recovered.”

“They thought…Oh Celestia…” She put her face in her hooves and tried to hold back the tears. “Twilight…she was watching. So were the others…they thought they saw me die.”

“That is correct. If I recall, they buried you- -well, a coffin full of bricks representing you- -with full military honors. You were also awarded the posthumous rank of Lieutenant Commander.”

Rainbow Dash sunk into her bed, staring at the ceiling. She now noticed that the lights were not the normal light-bulbs that ponies used, but tubes filled with hundreds of tiny, star-like pinpricks. Her mind turned to her friends. Their smiling faces were so fresh in her memory- -from her perspective, she had just seen them hours ago, waving to her as she took off toward the sky, Fluttershy “shouting” her characteristic weak cheer. The memory was so clear and so crisp- -but that was all gone. Everything was gone.

It was hard to know which feeling was worse, however. The sudden knowledge that everypony she had ever cared about was long-dead, or the fact that she had been the one who left them behind. They had not left her; she had left them. She had not meant to- -but she had.

“Why?” she asked.

“Excuse me?” said Anhelios, leaning forward- -but not close enough to be within grasping distance.

“Why didn’t you just leave me there? Why didn’t you let me die?”

“Because I did not want to,” said Anhelios, as if it were obvious.

“You should have just left me…”

“I would have if I knew you would be this whiny.”

“Hey,” said Rainbow Dash, hurt. “I learned that everything I ever loved is gone!”

“So what? You’re Rainbow Dash. You are the tough one. Or, perhaps, your legend is overblown.”

“Legend?” said Rainbow Dash, looking up, wiping away the tears from her eyes.

“Yes, legend. To this day, you are the only full-organic pony to have ever achieved a sonic rainboom unassisted. You fought Discord, Chrysallis, Sombra, Tirac, Nil, the Paragon Cult, Sevelon, and probably a great number of which I am unaware. But if I knew that Wonderbolts were such wimps- -”

“Okay, now that’s over the line!” cried Rainbow Dash, pulling herself the rest of the way out of the machines that supported her. She got as far as the end of the bed and collapsed. “My legs,” she said, shaking and losing balance as she tried to stand. “What’s wrong with my legs?”

“You’ve been unconscious for nearly two weeks. It seems you have temporarily forgotten how to walk.”

“When I get you, I am going to…”

Anhelios smiled. “Now that is the Rainbow Dash I expected.”

“Huh?” said Rainbow Dash, confused.

“One month. That was all it took. Perhaps your image took on a life of its own- -but you became the symbol of the Wonderbolts. Well, until they disbanded when…no. Later. First, an offer.”

“Offer?”

“Yes. For the time being, I think you should join me.”

“Join you? Wait, are you hitting on me?”

“I am not into mares, so no. Or stallions. Slightly equidroids. Still no. I mean, until you are adapted to modern life.”

“I can adapt myself plenty- -whoa!” she tilted, falling against her nightstand.

“Clearly.”

Rainbow Dash did not agree to Five’s offer. Not explicitly, at least. She was even more stubborn than history had recorded- -but reasonably malleable. Although she refused to say “yes” to Five’s offer of support, she had also refused to deny it. Instead, she simply seemed to hang around Five, always finding an excuse for Five to stay when she tried to leave.

She was eventually discharged, rather quickly, and not a moment too soon. Five could easily produce gems, but it was not easy. It required a significant quantity of magic as well as matter, which she needed to eat. Paying for Rainbow Dash’s stay had consumed virtually all of her nutrient cubes, as well as a significant amount of food that she had managed to steal from the hospital cafeteria- -white rice and potatoes, mostly, the overpowering flavors of which assisted with summoning the inevitable vomit.

So, several hours after her awakening, Rainbow Dash left the recovery room with Five and her a large brass and steel onboard-server equidroid- -her doctor, Iron Lung. She was still shaking slightly, but seemed to be using her inorganic elements completely naturally.

Interestingly, when she was given the choice to select the shield plating for her new legs, Rainbow Dash had chosen a matte gold finish. To Five, it looked absurd and gaudy- -but somehow seemed to fit Rainbow Dash perfectly. With the plating, she looked almost as though she were simply wearing armor over the legs on her left side- -although anypony who saw her would definitely know that the true identity of her limbs.

“You were badly damaged when you arrived,” said Iron Lung as he led the pair through the sterile, white, and oddly industrial hallways of the hospital.

“Well, I feel great now,” lied Rainbow Dash. Five could tell that while physically she was the same- -if not better- -than she had been, she was mentally crushed.

“Yes, you should. You are some of my best work. We do not get too many patients here…well, that I can fix, anyway. Ah, the amount of time I spent with my hooves in your chest cavity…”

“Um…yeah,” said Rainbow Dash, faking a smile. “Good times.”

“Indeed they were.” He paused at a large door and typed in a code onto the access panel. A light shifted from red to violet, and then the door released with a hiss of negative pressure. “Enjoy your life as a cyborg, my child.”

“Um…yeah…thanks, um…doc?”

Rainbow Dash stepped out into the waiting room, pausing almost as soon as she got past the door, staring at Gell, who was sitting in a corner reading a magazine that was perhaps older than even she was. Their eyes momentarily met.

“Of course,” said Iron Lung, “we are not a private hospital…”

Five reached into her bag and removed an extremely large dravite crystal and handed it to Iron Lung. She tried as hard as she could to suppress her smile- -of all the gems she had produced, that was the only one that had not come from her mouth.

“Destroy her medical records,” ordered Five as Iron Lung put his hoof on the gem. “No pony can know she was here.”

“Of course. I will wipe the nurses myself.”

Five released the gem, and Iron Lung waved as she passed into the waiting room. Rainbow Dash and Gell were still staring at each other- -Rainbow Dash looking up, halfway between confusion and awe, and Gell looking down over her magazine, Philomena perched on the tip of one of her horns.

“Response?” said Five, looking around to confirm that nopony was present. None were, save for the nurse equidroid overseeing the empty waiting room. Oddly, only three other patients had come in- -and none of them had left.

“Are you sure this is really her?” said Gell, folding the magazine neatly and putting it on the table near her. “I mean, she looks a little small…”

“Excuse me?” said Rainbow Dash, frowning.

“I have shown you the data,” said Five. “This is the genuine Rainbow Dash.”

Gell leaned close to her, and Rainbow Dash recoiled- -but only slightly. Staring into the blood-red eyes of a demon was no small task, but Rainbow Dash defiantly held her ground.

“Satinbless,” said Gell, mostly to herself. “You are stunning.”

Rainbow Dash blinked. “Um…thank you?”

Gell locked her eyes onto Rainbow Dash’s. “I am attracted to you,” she said, slowly and clearly. “I want to have sex with you. Please mate with me.”

That seemed to break Rainbow Dash’s defiance. She immediately moved backward, backpedaling with such force that she knocked her rump into a chair and nearly fell over. She was blushing heavily, but for some reason she was not able to retract her wings against her body properly. Five only smiled.

“Is that- -is that a joke?”

“No,” said Five. “She actually wants to. As an objective observer, you are physically fit, have well-developed wings, an unusual mane color, and are a cyborg. Plus, history records you as…well…”

Rainbow Dash blushed far more deeply. “I was drunk!” she cried. “It happened once! And Rarity promised not to tell anypony! I’m not a lespony!”

“I’ll take you either way,” said Gell, smiling. “But, if not, well. The offer is standing. And believe me, when I’m done with you, you won’t be.” She walked past Rainbow Dash, nearly pushing her over. “An, come on. I’ve been sitting on my glorious demonic rump for almost a week now. Time to move on. I hate hospitals.”

“Not a fan myself. At least there was no maternity ward.”

“You don’t like foals?” asked Rainbow Dash, confused.

“They are my worst fear,” said Five.

“I can’t tell if you’re being sarcastic,” admitted Rainbow Dash.

“Nopony can,” sighed Gell.

Rainbow Dash looked up at the mountainlike armored demon, and Five watched as her eyes shifted toward the red and orange birds on Gell’s horn, which had been watching her in disbelief since she entered.

“That bird…” said Rainbow Dash, narrowing her eyes. “That’s a phoenix…” she suddenly gasped. “Philomena?”

If birds could smile, Philomena would have. She immediately took off from Gell’s horn and flew down to Rainbow Dash, landing on her outstretched foreleg.

“Philomena!” she said, overjoyed at meeting at least an animal who was her contemporary. “But- -but how?”

“Barring accidents, phoenix are functionally immortal,” explained Five, absentmindedly stepping past Rainbow Dash and joining Gell.

Rainbow Dash scratched Philomena underneath the beak, and the bird purred in response. “But how did you get Celestia’s bird?”

“She is not Celestia’s anymore,” said Five.

“You mean you stole her?”

“No. I will explain later.” Or, Five imagined, as soon as Rainbow Dash got outside and saw the massive hole in the firmament where the sun had once sat.

“Phoenixes are awesome,” said Rainbow Dash. “But not as cool as Tank. He’s my tort- -” her smile faded and tears welled in her eyes as she realized that her beloved pet had been dead for centuries. “Tank…” she said, releasing Philomena, who returned to her station on Gell’s head.

Five looked back at Rainbow Dash. She could not claim to understand what the blue mare was feeling- -perhaps no pony could.

“Hey,” said a voice. It was not physical, but inside her own head. Five did not turn to betray that she was hearing it, but she knew- -even though it sounded nothing like her real voice- -that it came from Gell. “I know you can hear me you twit.”

“I can,” responded Five, projecting her own mind into Gell’s. The sensation was odd- -not just because it was difficult, but because Gell so rarely allowed Five to communicate with her mentally, in part because it virtually guaranteed that she was listening.

“You are absolutely sure that it is her?”

“Yes, I am.”

“Then why didn’t you just strip out her skull?”

“Do you understand the implications of this at all? She is the living Element of Loyalty.”

“So what?”

“So: there is no guarantee the device will work, even with all six. They may have been dead too long, and I don’t even know if I can get all of them. Her power is much greater alive- -and she can prove useful in manifold ways.”

“You’re an idiot. But…she is really hot. So I’m going to go with this, for now.”

“Trust me on this. I have a plan…”

The equidroid nurse overseeing the waiting room watched as three ponies left the room. She was just one of several bodies linked to a central AI server kept in the largest and most elaborate of her bodies, so she did not normally bother to dedicate much resources to whatever body was at the front desk unless a large number of miners came in at once, usually oozing their disgusting organic fluids all over the concrete floor. At the moment, however, she was downloading a firmware update, as well as using the body in the waiting room as a wireless antenna to pick up a ponynet music station.

More processing power was directed to that form, however, to watch those three leave. A large pure-blood demon with ornate armor and a strange bird, a chiropteran with unusually wide eyes, and a rainbow-maned pony cyborg. It was just too unusual to pass up.

“Thank you for your patronage!” she said with sickening, preprogrammed happiness in her voice, waving. The chiropteran turned her and waved lacadasically, then turned back to the hallway to the main exit.

Neither the nurse nor the three exiting ponies noticed that the nurse equidroid’s head suddenly cocked several degrees to the left, her eyes momentarily commandeered by the botnet lurking inside her base program files suddenly activated, focusing suddenly on the cutie mark of the rainbow-maned mare.

Then, as quickly as it came, the presence vanished. It had moved so fast that the nurse had not even noticed, and simply went about doing her chores- -finding that Iron Lung must already have deleted the mare’s medical record, as it had already vanished from her internal database.

Chapter 7: After the Funeral

View Online

In the view of all involved, the service had been as beautiful as it had been sorrowful. The setting had been crafted perfectly by the Pegasi. They had moved a small, flat cloud bank out over the ocean and carefully positioned further clouds overhead to create a dull, drizzling atmosphere appropriate for the solemnity of the occasion. The ocean below reflected the gray back upward, and every pony atop the cloud could hear it in the distance as it churned below them.

Those who had known her in life had come. Her friends and what family she had left stood atop the clouds, all dressed in black. Some wept silently, and others loudly, unable to control their sense of grief. Her comrades stood beside them, remaining as stoic as their position demanded, dressed in ceremonial battle uniforms.

As Rainbow Dash’s commanding officer, in accordance with the ancient traditons laid down by Pegasus himself so many millennia ago, it had been Spitfire’s duty, honor, and burden to oversee the ceremony. She had took her place beside the device that supported the coffin, and she had given her speech. It had been short, not because Rainbow Dash did not deserve longer, but because it did not need to be. Everypony present had known her well enough to understand their loss already.

Then spitfire had taken her position next to the coffin, and as the Wonderbolts and any of Celestia’s military present saluted, she pulled the lever. The coffin fell, passing through the clouds, falling in one last flight to the sea.

Of course, there had been no body. Everypony knew that. Rainbow Dash had been vaporized, her end quick and painless in a blaze of glory that suited her so well- -if it had come when she was all-to-young. All the coffin contained were bricks to for weight, as well as several singed blue feathers that had been collected from the crash site. It had been all that was left. Even knowing that, when the coffin fell, they all felt as though she truly were leaving them, never to return.

Then they had stood for a moment in silence. At the front of the group stood Applejack, her hat in one hoof and her other around an inconsolable Scootaloo. Beside her was Fluttershy, watching her friend’s final descent, holding a tortoise in her hooves who was himself dripping the tiniest of tears. Rarity stood to her side, her makeup running, Spike with his arm around her, trying his best to comfort her; Pinkie Pie stood on the other side, her hair straight and her coat nearly as gray as the sky. One face was conspicuously absent.

As the ceremony ended and the ponies drifted away silently, Shining Armor felt a hoof on his shoulder. He turned to see Cadence, tears in her eyes. They had both only known Rainbow Dash distantly at first, but in the four years since the destruction of Nil, they had both become increasingly close to her.

They embraced, and Shining Armor felt his wife’s tears on his dark-colored uniform.

Cadence looked back at the departing ponies, and the five- -and one dragon- -who stayed longer than the others.

“She wasn’t here,” said Cadence.

“I know,” said Shining Armor.

“Shining…you have to talk to her.”

“But what can I say?”

“That it wasn’t her fault. She won’t listen to me- -she can’t even face her friends. But you are her brother. Please. Help her.”

Shining Armor looked into his wife’s almond-shaped purple eyes, and nodded.

Twilight sat at the edge of the cliffs that bordered the ocean below, listening to the sound of the waves cresting the rocks below. From her vantage, she could see the cloud where the ceremony was being performed, and she had seen the tiny dot of the coffin falling from it- -to the point where she even saw the glint of her friend’s cutie mark painted on the side. She had been forced to look away.

Distantly, she heard a carriage land beside her, and a pony with a familiar voice speak to another pony. There was a flutter of wings, the sound of which brought profound pain to Twilight’s heart, and the Pegasus-drawn carriage departed.

“Twilight?” said a voice beside her. Shining Armor appeared at her side, dressed in a dark colored version of his military uniform.

Twilight said nothing. She imagined that she probably looked terrible, but did not care. She had not slept since the incident. Instead, she had been checking and re-checking her calculations, trying to determine what she had done wrong. As of yet, she had not found it- -but she knew it was there, somewhere.

Shining Armor sat beside his sister. Twilight expected him to say something trite, like that it was not her fault, or ask her if everything was okay. He seemed to understand, though- -and he said nothing, waiting for her to speak first but not caring if she did at all. They simply watched the gray, cold sea together.

“I just…” said Twilight at last, and choked on the rest of the words, trying to hold back the tears. It had been like this before, back during the Choggoth War, when she had thought Celestia was dying- -but this version of the pain was far worse. It was not simply loss, but guilt.

“She was an amazing pony, wasn’t she?” said Shining Armor.

Twilight smiled. “Yeah…she was.” Then she could hold back the sobbing no longer, and she collapsed into tears.

“Twilie,” said Shining Armor. He leaned over to take her in a hug, but Twilight pushed him hard away from her.

“Stay away from me,” she snapped. “I don’t- -I don’t deserve it…”

“Twilie, your friend just died…”

“Do you think I don’t know that?! I’m the one who killed her!” she screamed.

“No,” said Shining Armor, firmly. “Twilight, you didn’t kill her- -”

“It was my magic that failed her, my machine, my theories that she was testing! It wasn’t an accident, Shining! It was a failure.” She dropped to the ground. “My failure.” She closed her eyes, but promptly opened them again. Every time she closed them, she saw Rainbow Dash’s face- -the last expression she ever made- -one of pure joy at traveling faster than anypony had ever traveled before. Then the surge of fire and concussive blast as she was torn apart on a molecular level as her magic shield failed.

“She was a soldier, a Wonderbolt,” said Shining Armor. “She knew the risks.”

“Shining,” said Twilight, smiling hollowly. “This wasn’t a battle. She didn’t die in a war, or fighting- -she died helping me test a spell. I…she’s gone, because of me…”

Shining Armor put his foreleg around her once more, momentarily recoiling from the feeling of her hairless purple skin. Twilight struggled weakly, but Shining Armor was stronger, and she could not escape the embrace. Instead, she turned to him and buried her head in his chest.

“I didn’t think- -” she sobbed, “I always knew, I always knew- -but I thought there would be- -more time!”

“I know,” said Shining Armor, stroking her disheveled mane. “I know, Twilie.”

“It’s started,” she whispered. “It’s started…she was the first, but I am immortal…Shining, I don’t know if…I don’t know if I can do this five more times…”

“I know, Twilie. I know. But you are strong.”

She pulled back from his chest and looked up at him, her eyes bloodshot and watery.

“No, I’m not,” she said. “How can anypony be that strong?”

“Well, you have to be,” he said. “Because you weren’t her only friend. The others are up there, waiting for you. They need you, Twilight. They need you to be strong. Even if you think you can’t, do it for them.”

“But how can I face them, after what I did?”

“You have to find a way. It is what she would have wanted. Don’t let them lose two friends because of this.”

Twilight sighed, and produced a weak smile- -a small one, but one that was genuine. She sat with Shining Armor for some time longer, sobbing intermittently, until finally the sun broke out through the clouds, showering the departing ponies with light and a perfect rainbow dropped from above- -a final departing gift for Rainbow Dash.

“Alright,” said Twilight. She stood and shook the water off her body, and spread her wings. She looked back, and Shining Armor nodded. She then took flight to join her friends- -her tears falling into the ocean as she did so.

Shining Armor watched her leave. He smiled as she went, but it quickly faded. He did understand- -perhaps more than anypony- -what she had meant, and the thought of it terrified him more than anything. In his instance, however, his condition was reversed. Alicorns were immortal- -they would inevitably outlive anypony they ever loved. It was their curse, but a curse he could never share. As time passed, they would leave him behind, just as Twilight had been forced to leave Rainbow Dash.

The thought of being forced to leave the world frightened him- -and he finally decided what he had known for so long. That such a condition was utterly intolerable.

Chapter 8: Changelings

View Online

In the far reaches of Equestria stood an ancient dessert, one that had been rendered lifeless millions of years prior by a phenomenon that no pony could recall. Even in the countless millennia since it had been empties, few forms of life had yet returned, unable to bear the endless dryness of its dusty surface or the endless sandstorms that seemed to wander through the flat, shifting planes that had swallowed so many pony explorers.

Despite its inhospitability, however, it was not truly devoid of life. It contained one of the greatest and most powerful fiefdoms under the control of the alicorn Thebe: this was the land of the changelings.

In the frozen wastes, their eternal city stood: the ancient, tower-like mounds, standing hundreds of feet high, stood like mountains on the horizon. Those were only the top, however; the true hive extended miles beneath the surface into tunnels dug since the time when there had only been one queen, instead of the modern six.

This city loomed only in the farthest distance as a group of five changelings patrolled their section of the perimeter, their membranous wings fluttering through the upper-darkness of the fringes of their mighty civilization.

At a predefined set of coordinates, they descended into the fine sand below. Despite having wings, changelings were relatively weak flyers. When food supplies were low- -and, in modern Equestria, the supply of love was always low- -they needed to take frequent breaks to conserve energy.

As they waited, some of them spoke to each other in their clicking, hissing native language. Others simply stood, waiting. One of them looked out into the desert, as he always did during the breaks- -trying to see if anything was out there, wondering what threats they were actually guarding their kind against.

On this night, however, he actually saw something.

“Look there,” he said in his language, pointing. The others instinctively turned, and, upon seeing the figure in the distance, looked as well.

“A mirage,” one of them said.

“Agreed,” said another.

“Disagree,” clicked another.

They all stared out into the distance, trying to fathom what the figure might have been- -if it was a desert mirage, or a trick of the dust that continuously blew at low levels. As it came closer, however, they all began to agree that it definitely was something- -but they were not sure what.

It stood like no creature they had ever seen, balancing on two long legs, its long and narrow arms swinging at its sides gently as it trudged across the dessert. Its color was dark, and the group agreed that it was probably wearing armor of some kind. They could not agree upon what it was, however. As soldiers, aside from being larger than worker changelings, they were also some of the few permitted knowledge of the outside world, and they had been trained to recognize foreigners. Two of them suggested that it was a candid, either an ahuizotl or a diamond dog; another suggested a minotaur. There was also momentary discussion of the possibility that it was one of Thebe’s golems, but they deemed that highly unlikely.

Whatever it was, however, they knew that it was clearly a threat- -and they took a defensive posture. They charged their horns took flight, approaching in a V-formation, ready to lob a blast of magic in its direction if necessary.

They landed before it, and examined it more closely. It also seemed to be examining them through a pair of brightly glowing eyes in the otherwise softly curved plate that covered its face.

The creature, likewise, looked down at them, but it did not stop moving or even change its speed. None of the changelings could even imagine how it was failing to sink into the sand, or how it balanced on only two legs.

“Stop there,” said the one of them that had taken the point of the V in Equestrian. “This is sovereign soil. State your business or turn back now.” All of their horns leaked a thin haze of green light as they tried to ward off the creature by stance alone.

It did not stop.

“Fine,” said the leader. “If you will not obey, then you are nothing more than food.”

Simultaneously, each of them reached out with their minds into the creature’s. Their goal was simple, to the point that it was instinctive. This was how changelings fed: to understand a being’s love, and to take that love from it.

The force of the love within the creature came back thousands of times stronger than they had anticipated, to the point where it physically forced them to step back. No creature known had ever held so much love- -but it was wrong. The images that came to their mind were not of friends, or of a lover, or its family. What they saw, they could not understand. They saw fire and crystal and destruction. Visions of incomprehensible torment flooded their minds, as did the unending screams of agony. They saw the unparalleled cruelty and destruction: they saw the weak punished eternally by the strong, and the strong brought low by deception and treachery. In its mind were endless visions of flesh torn asunder, and of actions far worse than simple torture- -meant to crush the very souls of not only its enemies, but its allies as well.

The changelings could not comprehend this. They saw such things, and expected fear, or disgust, or even hatred. There was no fear, though, or even real hatred: only the purest love that any of them had ever tasted, and within it, they heard laughter- -the endless cackling of so many trillions who marched through the eternal fires of their own creation.

One of them collapsed, his mind snapped by the paradox, his body falling into the sand where he would lay for the rest of eternity. The others disconnected, the horror of what they had seen having momentarily disoriented them. They realized that although they had tasted its love, they had not grown stronger- -and that the connection had worked both ways. While they had seen visions from within its mind, it had seen into theirs.

Two of them who recovered most rapidly shapeshifted, altering their forms to match what they now knew was most certainly their enemy. They stood suddenly on their hind legs, their bodies identical to the creature, down to its luminescent but unseeing eyes.

At that, the creature paused, and the changelings sneered, knowing that the shock of witnessing the transformation had taken it off guard.

The two altered ones stepped forward, prepared to fight the creature with copies of its own hideous form- -but the creature did not recoil. Instead, it extended one of its arms and opened its plated, five-fingered hand.

One of the shifted changelings suddenly flew forward, its body glimmering with the magic of a telekinesis spell. He tried to resist, but its own magic was far too weak for it to break free. His feet cut furrows into the desert soil as he tried to claw his way back to his brothers, but he could not escape.

The creature took the changeling in its hand and closed the hand tightly around its neck. The changeling shifted back to its pony-like form and smiled, a gesture of surrender.

“Please, mercy,” it whispered.

The creature did not seem to understand. It raised its other hand and pointed one long finger at the changeling’s head. The finger suddenly morphed, the armor around it reconstructing into a long point that penetrated the changeling’s head.

He screamed and struggled, but as quickly as the pain had come it was gone. His chitinous neck was still being held tightly, but the claw pulled back, leaving a thin trail of green blood dripping from the wound.

Then came the screaming. The other changelings watched in horror as their brother started to shift, not understanding what he was doing, or why he was in so much pain. As they watched, they began to understand.
The captive changeling’s body shifted, but not as it should have. There was no symmetry, and no control: limbs shot out, extending, their armor splitting and tearing off revealing pale skin beneath. Hooves burst open into amorphous, shifting lumps of raw flesh that tried to assemble into claws, and the changeling’s body began to extend, growing taller, its armor falling away.

Then it began to destabilize. The shapeshifting reaction grew beyond the chagneling’s limit, forcing the sudden growth of extraneous arms. Its flesh tore apart, spraying the creature holding it with thick red blood. The changeling then began to burst open from the inside as deformed, gnarled bone spilled out of its ruined and unrecognizable body. The whole while, it screamed- -but as it did, its voice changed, distorting into something alien and hideous.

Within seconds, there was nothing left that the other changelings could bear to look at. Their brother had been reduced to a barely breathing mutant lump of limbs and twisted bones, his blood pouring onto the ground below. The creature only seemed to stare, neither amused nor displeased.

Then it threw the deformed changeling aside to die in the dirt. The blood on its body seemed to disappear as though it were being absorbed, and once again, it started walking.

Chapter 9: Outside

View Online

Rainbow Dash’s eyes widened as she looked into the sky. Five was not sure what she was feeling; perhaps awe, or fear, or even confusion, although Five was mostly sure that Rainbow Dash understood what the two holes in the sky meant.

They had just arrived to the surface through one of the personnel transports that permeated the six hundred foot wide umbilical that stretched at an oblique angle seventy miles below the surface to the mining colony below. They now stood with the massive junction behind them, amidst the endless automatic refining and processing facilities that took the endless stream of raw materials from deep within Equetsria’s crust, converting it into industrial product. Rainbow Dash had initially been astonished to realize that they had been underground- -deep underground- -in the mining colony’s hospital. She had then been amazed by the size of the pipeline that linked the upper world to the lower. Then, finally, her eyes fell on the locations where the sun and moon had once sat.

“Where’s- -where did the sun go?” she asked. “Or…the moon?” she turned to Five, expecting an answer.

“They are gone,” said Five, shrugging.

“Gone?! How do you lose the sun? Is Celestia slipping or what?”

“She’s dead.”

Rainbow Dash’s face froze comically, and Five once again watched as Rainbow Dash’s soul was just a little bit more damaged. “No,” she said, standing firmly on the concrete ground of the mining colony’s upper block. “Hay, no,” she said. “Celestia’s an alicorn. She’s older than dirt- -she can’t die.”

“Nopony can escape death. Alicorns are durable, not immortal.”

“Wait- -you mean sompeony killed her? Killed Celestia?”

“She is a bit thick, isn’t she?” said Gell.

“No,” said Five. “It is a cultural thing. Celestia was like their Thebe. They thought she was a god.”

“She was a god,” said Rainbow Dash, angrily. “I mean, goddess. She can’t die! And who is Thebe?”

“Celestia died of old age,” said Five.

“But she’s an alicorn,” said Rainbow Dash, exasperated. “They don’t age!”

“No, in a normal sense, anyway,” said Five. “Perhaps ‘age’ is an incorrect description. More truthfully, her power waned.”

“Waned?”

“Yes. In all honesty, in reviewing her historically, I think she saw it coming long before it happened. She knew she was dying. That is why she created the Hybrid Princess- -you’re Twilight Sparkle. Or, perhaps, the sun and moon simply declined without their sibling intact.” That was a theory Five had toyed with, but that was not widely accepted. In her mind, the long-dead Finality Core had a stabilizing effect on the sun and moon, maintaining them throughout the ages, even in its long dormancy. The sun and moon, after all, were not meant to be eternal- -they were only meant to power the Finality Core for a brief moment, and then to be consumed with the world they orbited.

“So she just…”

“Ended. That was late in Two’s time, so…about one hundred twenty years after your ‘death’.”

“And Luna?”

“The moon cannot exist without the sun.” Saying it, Five suddenly became unusually conscious of the black stain that surrounded her cutie mark. “I am not lying, Rainbow Dash. As of right now, only one alicorn lives. That alicorn is Thebe.”

Five stepped past Rainbow Dash, and Philomena took flight, leaving her location on Gell’s horn and flying to Five. The air was cool, and there was a stiff but not excessive breeze.

“Who is Thebe?” asked Rainbow Dash.

“Nopony knows,” said Gell. “She just sort of…showed up. Maye thirty years after the other alicorns were gone, she just appeared.”

“That’s not what I mean,” sighed Rainbow Dash.

“She is the eternal ruler of Equestria,” said Five. “That is all which is known. Aside from the fact that her magical ability makes Celestia appear as a unicorn foal.”

Rainbow Dash’s eyes lit up. “Hey…Twilight once traveled back in time with magic- -or she said she did, at least. Do you think this Thebe could send me back?”

“Nopony speaks to Thebe,” said Five. “Nopony sees her. Thebe has little interst in this world. So no. Aside from that, history already records you as having died. You cannot possibly return.” She stared directly into Rainbow Dash’s eyes. “Accept that now. If you fail to, it will consume you. Do not allow it to.”

“And knowing that everything I ever loved is gone won’t?” She sighed and looked up at the sky. “You know…I really loved the sun. Taking naps on a warm sunny day, it was like nothing else in all Equestria. Now I guess I’ll never see the sun again.”

“I never have seen it,” said Five.

“What?”

“I have never seen the sun. I will never feel solar warmth upon my face. Nor will I know a moonlit night.”

“Didn’t know you were such a romantic,” said Gell, smiling wryly.

“You know that I am not. I do not care that I will never see these things. However, think of me as an exception. There are many ponies, like you, who will never experience those things.”

“Oh,” said Rainbow Dash. “I’m…I’m sorry.”

“Never apologize to me. There is no need to.” Five herself looked to the sky, pausing for a moment. “I am actually rather surprised, you know.”

“That I just jumped through time, or that I’m taking this so well?”

“No. You are taking this far more poorly than I would. No. I am surpised that we are outside, and your feet are on the ground.”

Rainbow Dash looked down at her legs, and then back at her wings, as though she had somehow forgotten that she had them.

“Oh,” she said, smiling with sadness in her eyes. “Yeah.”

Five spread her own wings and, with a degree of effort to overcome the weight of her saddlebags, lifted herself off the ground. “Come, Rainbow Dash. Fly with me.”

Rainbow Dash looked up and smiled, this time with far less sadness. She spread her wings, getting used to the medically reconstructed muscles and titanium struts that had been used to rebuild her bones. Then, with rocket-like speed, she flew into the air. The rainbow-colored wake alone nearly knocked Five out of the air, and Rainbow Dash did not stop until she was out of sight above them- -where she performed a slow loop.

“If there’s going to be flying involved,” said Gell. “I’m going back to bed. No wings and all.” She stamped her hoof on the ground and a pentagram appeared around her.

“Gell, please use the door,” said Five.

“No way. A real demon always takes the window.” She smiled widely. “Or we come up from the drainpipe and grab you when you’re on the can.”

The ground beneath her dematerialized momentarily, allowing her to fall through to the other side. It sealed rapidly, leaving an unsightly burnt pentagram onto the ground. Five sighed- -pentagram transport into and out of the Pocket was not necessarily bad for it, but could cause bizarre reconfigurations in the building structure that Five was not entirely sure how to fix.

Rainbow Dash descended from the air, swooping past Five, looping, and hovering above her. She was smiling broadly and laughing.

“Oh wow,” she said. “I really needed that. And these legs- -they’re perfect!” she waved around her robotic foreleg. “I mean, look at me, I’m a cyborg.” She giggled. “I mean, this is so cool.”

“Glad you think so,” said Five, joining Rainbow Dash. Above them, Philomena was circling, waiting for their departure. “I believe you will find that the modern age is actually not unpleasant. You may even grow to like it.”

Five spread her wings and glided across the refinery. Rainbow Dash followed, as did Philomena.

Rainbow dash looked around. “Um, where is you demon friend?”

“She is not my friend,” snapped Five. “And she is…well…hm. Explaining the idea of a reinforced long-term dimensional bubble may be beyond you at the moment. You will see it eventually.”

“Okay…” Rainbow Dash looked down at Five. “You fly like a bus.”

“My equipment is heavy. That, and I am better at agility flying than speed.”

“Well, we’ll never get anywhere unless you hurry up.” She paused. “Um, hey. Where are we going?”

“Elsewhere.”

Rainbow Dash seemed annoyed, and was about to continue to pester Five, when her eyes were suddenly attracted to the white-light rim that produced Equestria’s horizon. Five followed Rainbow Dash’s gaze, and, to her surprise, was actually equally amazed.

Rising from the edge of the horizon were hundreds of streaks of light, souring across the dark sky in slow arcs. They rapidly cut off, but Five could already see that the trails were simply gas expelled by vehicles. They were rockets- -thousands of them, pouring from where she knew the ocean to be.

At first she thought that she was seeing a missile strike, and was prepared to brace for the white-light of a neutron bomb to consumer her flesh and eyes, but the rockets flew incorrectly to be ICBMs. They were too big, their course too uneven and stable. Five quickly reached into one of her bags and produced a set of digital binoculars. She looked through them at the shaky images, trying to examine the rockets. From what she could see, they were not of any kind of architecture that she was aware of.

So she hovered with Rainbow Dash for a moment, their necks slowly craning as the glowing specks that were the rockets passed the grand dome of the firmament- -and poured through the black holes to the beyond.

“What…what’s happening?” asked Rainbow Dash, nervously.

“An exodus,” said Five. “Which is not at all good.”

Chapter 10: Plague

View Online

The situation was decaying rapidly.

“You!” yelled Toxic Shock to one of the equidroids that surrounded him. He had barely arrived off the transport vessel, but even with a cursory look over the Frontier District Eight medical support facility, he already knew that it was mostly gone. “Seal the facility! Nopony gets in or out!”

“That is not possible,” said the nervous sounding AI. “If we seal it, the doctors- -”

“We need to up a quarantine and decontamination system. You! This place requires a level V quarantine.”

“We have attempted,” said another equidroid, that one male. “The provisional congregation has denied our request.”

“What the hay…” Toxic Shock knew why, of course. Frontier Hub Eight was a critical trade point, a juncture to the highly expensive frontier districts and mining colonies that lied at the edge of Equestria. The companies and governments that controlled it did not want to shut it down, because it would shut down trade through the hub and cost them hundreds of millions of bits per day.

They were idiots. Instead of doing what they needed to do, they had called in an expert- -but it might already have been too late. Toxic Shock had read the briefing aboard the supersonic airship that had pulled him out of the depths of the Wastelands to do another “government” job.

From what he had learned, the medical support facility had airlifted in a badly injured pony from one of the far districts. The patient had been infected with an unknown pathogen, one that, despite their thorough searching, the frontier patrol had not managed to find in any other individual. Treatment had failed, as had attempts to isolate- -or to even understand the nature of- -the pathogen, aside from the fact that it was some kind of parasite.

That, alone, was just a sign of incompetency. Unfortunate, but not unexpected from doctors who lived so far from civilization. Only a few of them had witnessed the continual diseases that ravaged the megacities, and Toxic Shock was sure that none of them could even fathom the contagions that sprang up endlessly in the Wastelands.

They had not been prepared. The doctors and nurses who had treated the patient rapidly fell ill, mostly with respiratory symptoms but many with cutaneous injuries identical to the first patient. The idiots had then continued to treat. Perhaps they thought they were being heroic, but they were just throwing their lives away.

“Send out a request,” said Toxic Shock. “Which district are we closest to? Atomic Metal’s?”

“You can’t be serious,” said one of the few pony doctors that had come to meet him.

Toxic Shock stared at the small stallion, his synthetic irises narrowing. “We need doctors,” he said. “Doctors who won’t get sick.”

“But demons- -”

“Don’t get sick.” Toxic Shock turned to one of the equidroids. “Gather up all the other bodies you can. Even if they’re not doctors. I have a code upgrade. And put in an order for hazmat suits.”

He stopped moving through the hallway and looked through the windows. Inside, he could see the patients. Their bodies were twisted, their skin stained with blood that poured out of their orifices. Many of them had become completely catatonic, but others had begun babbling, pulling apart their skin to reach the black material that was moving beneath their skin.

“Open the door,” said Toxic Shock. “I’m going in.”

“But- -the infection!”

Toxic Shock gestured toward his body. Eighty percent of it was prosthetic- -not that there had been anything wrong with his original body; he had removed it simply because flesh was weak and poorly adapted to life managing industrial processes in a region where all the filth and toxic waste of Equestria was dumped. The ponies that filled the wards of this hospital were in bad shape, but he had seen far, far worse things happen to those who did not adapt.

He charged his horn, and a translucent mask of magic appeared over his face. “There rest of my team will be here soon. We need to track down everypony they came in contact with. If they so much as looked at a pony, get that pony in here and isolate them.”

Up close, they looked even worse. Their bodies seemed bent, as if they were being forced into odd positions, and x-rays confirmed massive deformity to their skeletal systems. Many of them coughed continuously, sprays of blood pouring from their mouths as they did. If the cutaneous infection was anything at all like what must have been inside their lungs, those ponies had reached the ends of their lives.

The hospital was clearly understaffed. Most of the doctors lay in the corners of the room, their own bodies starting to succumb to the infection. The remainder were equidroids, but there were still precious few of them, far too few to care for the sick and dying ponies around them- -or even to remove the many dead.

“You,” said a hoarse voice behind Toxic Shock. He turned to see an ahuizotl, his coat formerly pale red but not having fallen out in most places, revealing ulcerated skin with black, complex-shaped objects clearly forming beneath his skin. His coat indicated that he was a doctor- -and the blood covering it indicated that, even straddling the border of death, he had not stopped treating patients. “Are you Toxic Shock?”

“That I am.”

“Thank the goddess,” he said, a thin trail of blood oozing from the corner of his mouth. “I am Cuaitl. I am the one who called for external support.”

“Are you the head physician?”

“I am now.”

Toxic Shock looked at the creature, surprised that any being could stay standing in such a situation. From the way Cuaitl spoke and moved, it was clear that at least some parts of his body were no longer functional, including a number of nerves. The pain must have been excruciating.

“You have been exposed.”

The ahuizotl smiled, something Toxic Shock had not expected. “I have,” he said. “And I am dying.”

“But your still standing. We need to treat- -”

The ahuizotl shook his head. “No. I am already too far gone. Soon I shall see the sun again, and be with Her. I am sorry that my failure must now fall to you.” He reached into his pocket and removed a blood-stained medical projection pad. “My notes.”

Toxic shock took them, and as he did, he noticed that the ahuizotl had the incorrect number of fingers.

“Nothing we try works. Antibiotics, antiparasitics, nothing. The only thing keeping me functional is a massive dose of stimulants.”

“Have you tried surgical excision?” asked Toxic Shock, opening the notes and examining them. “Or, if you have any, nanotech meds?”

Cuaitl shook his head. “Yes. Surgery only results in infecting the surgeons, and nanotech accelerates the growth of the lesions exponentially. Even…”

Toxic Shock looked at the doctor. Ahuizotl rarely ventured into the Wastelands, but he could still recognize the look in the creature’s eyes- -one that was common across all species.

“What did you do?”

With a pain worse than what was wracking his body, Cuaitl withdrew an object he had attached to his back. A long, glinting, blood-spattered rifle.

“Even euthanasia doesn’t stop their pain…”

Farther in the back of the ward, away from many of the other patients, lay one pony who should have been in a far worse state than the others- -but was not. One who was actually beginning her recovery, even if the doctors could not comprehend the true implications of that.

Epicenter lay still, listening. She heard their voices, and the cries of the wounded who had not yet learned how to heal. She knew what they called her, and smiled at how pony parents sometimes had nearly prophetic vision when they selected their children’s names, and how cutie marks could sometimes be equally predictive. They called her Patient Zero.

She had become catatonic long before, but not because of the drugs that she had been given. They would have no effect on her now, and the pain would never stop. Not that it truly mattered ,of course. Pain simply meant that the repairs were working. Epicenter was not still because she was wounded. She was still because she was waiting.

So she simply stared up at the ceiling. Although her disease had taken her eyes, it had not taken her sight. Somehow she could still see. That was not at all a blessing, because it meant that she was able to see what was becoming of her once beautiful body, the changes that made even the equidroids stay far away from her.

It was the mental changes, however, that terrified her the most. She was beginning to forget why she had been afraid, and to see the world differently. The part of her that could remember was frightened, but she was rapidly becoming lucid, as if awakening from an absurd dream that had somehow seemed so real. The nature of the world, and of behavior, and of things themselves were becoming clear to her- -and somehow that was the most terrifying aspect of it all.

Chapter 11: The Last Alicorn

View Online

The machines activated, and Thebe felt herself slip back into consciousness as the magic that maintained her temporary forced dormancy faded. Her conscious mind rapidly surged back to her, and she once again became conscious of her body.

Alicorns did not need sleep. Thebe was no exception. What she had been doing was no what any sane pony would consider true “sleep”. Such torment was beyond her capacity- -instead, she had magically suppressed her vital signs for long enough for her body to regenerate from the injuries it incurred from simple existence.

She moved slowly through the gelatinous, translucent substance that contained her and passed through the membranous magic that enclosed the tank. She suspended herself with magic and felt as the tubes that connected to her containment suit unlatched from her body, retracting like snakes back into the support gel.

Thebe slowly lowered herself to the floor. She felt air rush through the filters in her containment suit. Strictly speaking, nothing about the external air was toxic- -nor was it impossible for her to simply purify all the air in her facility. Removing all smells was simply another part of the sensory deprivation that her suit allowed. She saw, or heard, only when she needed to. Keeping herself blind and isolated allowed her to focus the proper amount of energy inward.

As was customary upon reactivation from a cycle, she ran a diagnostic check on her containment suit. All features were normal, as they always had been. In fact, checking it was completely unnecessary: like all aspects of her life, the suit was simply an extension of her magic, rather than an independent item. It was as much a part of her as the hairless alicorn skin beneath it. She would be able to know when something was wrong.

Her magic wrapped itself around her, materializing into an amorphous fluid that aligned itself into a kind of garment. All around her, spheres of scarlet magic erupted in the air, and ten Draconian data cubes appeared. Each one began to project a cubic readout, filling the air around them with an alphabet of Thebe’s own design. The data contained poured from the cubes, entering her mind through her three horns, updating her on the condition of her experiments, research, and Equestria at large.

The entire process took nearly a minute. During dormancy cycles, Thebe normally put the spells that she used for research into a preprogramed state. As of recent, however, she had not bothered- -somehow, even with her mind forced to shut down, some part of her persisted that was able to ensure that everything ran smoothly.

As for Equestria, she hardly paid any attention. The internal events of the kingdom were managed by her puppet governments and corporate fronts- -most of them not even knowing that they were under her control. She was more concerned with updates with the current situation involving the ongoing war with Vale, even though the state of that particular grievance had not truly changed in nearly a century.

She closed the cubes and sent them back to where they had been. She then lifted herself with magic. The room shifted as she effortlessly moved to a new location. Her facility was built for her, and her alone; it had no doors, windows, or halls, except when she chose to summon them. Instead, she simply teleported between chambers.

In theory, she did not need to wander amongst her experiments and research- -she was already coincident of everything that was happening- -but she took some degree of pride in what she had managed to accomplish. Years, centuries, or even millennia of work came together under her guidance, by her will- -but so much remained unknown. She had long ago established the ability to resurrect the dead, but that alone had not been enough. She had promptly invented a counterspell to slay the living- -and currently invested some of her effort on further increasing the range of effect. Already, she was able to control life and death of any of her subjects- -even if she chose not to most of the time.

Necromancy was only one of the magics that she studied. Telepathy, mind control, conjuring, transformation of metals, and spells of unimaginable destructive potential- -she enjoyed them all so much. At the moment, however, she was still being stymied by the forms of magic that the “greats” of ages past had thought impossible: those that would enable precognition and omnipotence. She had made some degree of headway, but the tools necessary to accomplish them were still just outside of her reach.

She floated through the room, examining the spells and their readouts as their overlay architecture continually rewrote itself, or as it poured through artifacts and ancient tomes that she had managed to recover in her long life. She did not bother walking- -she hardly ever bothered to use her legs- -and was not truly flying. In fact, her wings were sealed against her back inside her suit. With adequate magic, the use of wings for flight was simply redundant.

One of the experiments seemed to intrigue her, and she stretched out her magic. A number of translucent geometric shapes formed a manipulator, an arm of sorts, and she reached into a chamber where precision-carved pieces of stone were moving, linked by a viscous red material. She pinched the red semi-fluid and removed a piece, watching as the amoeboid creature squirmed in her grasp. It was part of a far more practical form of magic; she had spent several months reverse-engineering Luna’s Tantabus, attempting to use it to create ephemerality spells that could be used for a new generation of golems. Ephemerality, though tactically useful, was surprisingly difficult to accomplish, especially for a synthetic life form intended to operate semi-independently from its operator.

As she set it back, something suddenly came to her attention. She was detecting a life within her perimeter that was not her. For a moment, she wondered if the gray unicorn frozen in enchanted frost that she kept several levels below had finally awoken- -but as she localized the disturbance, she saw that it was coming from somepony approaching from the outside.

Thebe dismissed this, at least at first. The security spells she used to ensure her isolation were strong enough to tear a planet in half- -even the Incurse armada had not been able to penetrate the defenses of her Pyramid. As she continued to watch, however, she realized that it was moving relatively unhindered, forming halls as it moved. Beneath her pony-faced mask, she frowned, because she recognized the magical signature.

Once again she shifted, moving through space and time, ignoring the physics that so many lesser-minded mages had considered to be a real. As she left one chamber, she appeared in another, one that formed a great and empty corridor, something like a parody of the long-abandoned grand halls that still adorned the forgotten and decaying palace in Canterlot.

Slowly, Thebe floated to the edge, and watched as the familiar figure she had felt descended from a chamber above, landing on the stonelike floor below and retracting his vast, leathery wings through the slits in his cloak.

He stood substantially taller than Thebe, standing on two legs, his arms at his sides. Although he was far taller than Thebe, Thebe floated at eye level. Even doing so, she could not see well into the darkness of his hood- -aside from the glint of a single golden eye.

“Grand Magus,” said Thebe, her voice not coming from her body but from everything that surrounded them.

“Thebe,” growled the Grand Magus from beneath his hood. Thebe could nearly feel his eyes burning into her. Not that he was actually any real threat- -his power was far beyond that of any pony who had ever lived, but hers was most likely greater. “Still wearing that ridiculous mask, I see.”

“Would you ask me to remove it, Magus?”

“Would you even survive without it?”

“Yes. The question is not would I survive, but what would become of you.” She paused for a moment, getting used to the feeling of speaking. Even if she was not using her mouth, this was the first time she had spoken to anypony in several decades. “Tell me, Grand Magus,” she asked. “Why have you come here?”

“I think you already know,” he said. “Or have you stopped bothering with the outside world entirely?”

“Many things happen. I am aware of many, but not all.”

“Something is happening, Thebe. Surely you have noticed.”

“Be more specific.”

The Grand Magus sighed. “The Rotali just left Equestria. Not all of them, but most of them.”

“They are not my prisoners. They are free to return to the Beyond whenever they please.”

“They were escaping, Thebe. Do you even care what they were running from?”

“No.”

“And the changelings? Nine tenths of their population was destroyed!”

“I have distributed the necessary royal jelly to generate a new set of queens,” said Thebe. “No further action is required. Their civilization will rebuilt shortly. Perahps in less than seven centuries.”

“You arrogant fool!” cried the Grand Magus, suddenly slamming his clawed fist into one of the walls. It cracked, but as he took it away the wall automatically repaired itself. He sighed, calming himself. “Do you even care what caused that damage?”

“I admit I am curious, but not curious enough to dedicate resources toward the investigation.”

“Well, I am. And do you know what I found?”

Thebe only stared, knowing full well that the Grand Magus would keep babbling even if she went back into dormancy.

“Nothing,” he said, raising his claws to the ceiling in a grand shrug. “Nothing at all. Whatever did it was powerful enough to take on the entire changeling fiefdom without taking a scratch- -and not even the best of the Draconians can find a trace.”

That intrigued Thebe more than his previous blathering. She had been aware of the Rotali launch, as well as the destruction of the changelings- -and she had also been distantly aware that her own orbital satellites had not detected anything out of the ordinary, as if whatever had caused the destruction were completely invisible.

“And you propose that the Rotali exodus is linked to the destruction of the changelings? On what grounds?”

“It isn’t just the Rotali. Your precious Incurse have been leaving as well. Surely you have noticed the disappearances- -and if you haven’t, ponies will soon.”

That was slightly more disturbing, but only marginally so. The Rotali were simple colonizers, as were their associated Beyonder races- -but the Incurse of Equestria were refugees. They could not simply return to the Beyond, at least not without putting themselves in great peril.

“And you came all this way to offer your insights?” sighed Thebe, becoming increasingly annoyed at the Grand Magus’s presence. Her day had been carefully scripted according to the great number of tasks she had to attend to, and he was consuming time rapidly, forcing her to juggle the schedule in her head, accommodating for the intrusion on her life.

“I came to ask for your help,” he said. “Whatever this is, it is a threat to all Equestria. Surely you must realize that.”

“Denied,” said Thebe flatly.

“What?” sputtered the Grand Magus. “But the threat- -”

“Is not my concern,” said Thebe, turning around and proceeding to float back down the hallway. “The ponies who inhabit my world will handle it. Or not. Perhaps it will destroy civilization for a few centuries, if it is as dangerous as you expect. Or millennia.”

“You would let the world be destroyed for thousands of years?”

“You are stuck thinking like a pony. A thousand years is an insignificant blink to us. It does not actually matter.”

“And you would let those ponies suffer, Thebe?”

“If they choose to. They are not my concern.”

“You are their leader!”

“No. I am their god.” She turned back to the Grand Magus. “Do as you will. I will not stop you. But at the moment, what you are suggesting is not interesting to me.” She turned away once again, and contemplated where she was going to go next.

“How can you be so cruel, Thebe?”

“Cruel?” she laughed slightly. “This is not cruelty. Not at all.”

“Even if billions die?”

“No. Not in my opinion.”

The Grand Magus followed her, his lower claws clicking across the floor. “How did you become like this, Thebe?”

“I have never been any other way.”

“You were. I once loved you, Thebe.”

“Love,” she said. “Such an outdated concept. Look what your so-called ‘Love’ did to Cadence. Look what your ‘Friendship’ did to Twilight. The very things that they valued tore them apart. I will not make the same mistakes.”

“Then it is you who are the fool,” he said softly, throwing an object toward Thebe. She caught it in her magic, and saw that it was a common data storage spike.

“What is this?” she asked as the Grand Magus turned away and extended his wings.

“It is what the Eye saw. Because I know you well, Thebe. You may not care about Equestria, but you are curious. So perhaps this trip was not a complete waste.”

“Go back to you mountaintop, dragon,” said Thebe. “And if you return here unannounced again, I will kill you.”

“Good luck with that,” said the Grand Magus as he took flight, leaving Thebe once again alone.

She watched him go, and then shifted to a different chamber, one of the many that had nothing in it. Being around the Grand Magus made her feel strange, as though she had been rolling in something foul. Of all the creatures alive, there were only two that she truly hated: him, and Vale.

Still, she was curious about what the Grand Magus was so concerned about- -and, admittedly, she wondered what kind of creature had the capacity to destroy one of her sub-kingdoms and then simply disappear. So the encased the drive in her magic and read it.

All that was on it was an image- -explaining why the Grand Magus had not bothered to use an entire data cube. The picture was distorted, as though it were taken through some kind of obscure and unfashionable camera lense. Thebe imagined that the way that image was displayed was how his artificial eye- -a relic from a long-dead civilization, pulled from a being blessed by the Madgod Thoghth- -actually saw the world.

In it, Thebe saw a tall figure walking amongst the swirling wreckage and flame of some unseen locale. Although the image was distorted, one aspect of the figure was clear: its glowing white eyes. It momentarily seemed to stop moving and peer into the camera- -as if it somehow knew that it was being watched. Then it continued onward.

Something deep within the unfathomable workings of Thebe’s mind seemed to suddenly ignite. It was a memory, one so distant that it was unclear, perhaps so far back that it even predated her life as an alicorn. Somehow, she felt that she had seen creatures like that one before.

Chapter 12: Contact

View Online

The sky was strange, but the air felt good. To fly was a type of freedom that few could experience, and, it seemed, the one thing that the endless passage of time had not been able to take from Rainbow Dash. She would never again feel the sun, but the sky remained.

She turned toward the pony trailing behind her. Five, as she called herself, was not a fast flyer by any means- -but she had a nearly impossible level of stamina. Without the sky, Rainbow Dash had not way to know how much time had passed, but she knew- -although she would never admit it- -that she was becoming tired. Five, however, did not seem to be showing any signs of fatigue.

“So,” said Rainbow Dash, falling back and taking a position at three-high over Five. “Where exactly do you live?”

“Here,” said Five without looking up. Philomena, who had grown tired as well, was nestled in the fine bat-fuzz between her wings, just beyond the end of Five’s mane.

Rainbow Dash looked down at the ground. “Really? Down there?”

“No. You have misunderstood. Here, because here is where I am. I live where I am.”

“Wait…so you’re homeless?”

“That is correct.”

“Hold on!” said Rainbow Dash, grinding to a halt. “You never told me that!”

“You are also homeless.”

Rainbow Dash nearly retorted, but realized that in an odd way, Five was correct. Her cloud home had probably dissipated ages ago. She started following Five again, and was still annoyed, but she felt her curiosity increasing. Rainbow Dash was no fool- -she knew that her legs and whatever doctor stuff had been done to her had been costly. Five had somehow paid for it all, so it was unlikely that she was homeless because of lack of funds.

“What exactly do you do?”

“What I desire,” said Five. “Mostly, I wander.”

“Oh. That’s…cool.” It actually was, at least somewhat. “Like an adventurer?”

“Adventurer, mercenary, scientist. Many words to mean the same thing.”

“That actually is kind of neat. But where is your real home?”

“I do not understand the question.”

“Where are you from?”

“My mother.”

Rainbow Dash put her hoof on her forehead and ran it down her face. Five’s jokes were terrible- -if, of course, they were jokes. “No. Where does your family live?”

“I have no family.”

“Eeesh,” said Rainbow Dash, suddenly embarrassed that she had brought it up- -even though Five did not seem at all bothered by it. “Like…Applejack’s parents kind of no family?”

“My mother is dead. I have no father.”

“The jerk ran off?” said Rainbow Dash, suddenly self-righteously angry. “That is not cool.”

“No. That would imply that I have a father somewhere. I have no father anywhere.”

“How does that work?”

“My bloodline is parthogens,” said Five. She looked up at Rainbow Dash, seeing that she was confused. “It is a special variety of female. It means we give birth to genetically identical females without insemination. It is the reason why I so much resemble Anhelios. Because, genetically, we are the same.”

“So you can just pop out a baby at any time? That’s the most terrifying thing I’ve ever heard!”

“It doesn’t work like that,” said Five. “However, interesting trivia…” She lifted her leg and turned slightly in the air, exposing her underside to Rainbow Dash. “No mammary glands.”

“Eew,” said Rainbow Dash, covering her eyes, but momentarily seeing that Five was correct. “You’re a bit of a weirdo, aren’t you?”

“Considering that I was largely raised by Gell, yes, I am.” She paused for a moment and sniffed the air. “Do you smell that?”

“Um…no…”

Without warning, Five suddenly descended into the treetops below. Rainbow Dash hesitated, not wanting to enter the Everfree Forest at night- -but followed.

“What is it?” she said as she landed beside Five. The sky above was not entirly dark, and the forest was not either, but nothing was really visible. The leaves of the trees were little more than silhouettes against a dark sky.

Five seemed to have no trouble navigating the forest- -probably, Rainbow Dash reasoned, because she was part bat- -and did not seem to be nervous or frightened about the strange sounds that moved through the trees around them. She looked more bored than anything else.

“What are those noises?” asked Rainbow Dash, looking up and jumping as she saw something with luminescent, reflective eyes staring back at her- -something that promptly moved.

“If you have to ask, you do not want to know. Why, are you afraid?”

“Me? Afraid? No way!”

Five only smiled, and spread her wings. With complete disregard for personal safety, she shot through the trees. Rainbow Dash blinked, unsure what she had just seen- -that the slow pony who had been barely managing to keep up with her had moved so fast. Rainbow Dash spread her own wings and followed.

From what she saw, Five was apparently insane. She was not truly flying, but actually running, jumping occasionally and using her wings to guide her as she flew short distances- -somehow avoiding trees that Rainbow Dash could only see when she got within a few feet of them.

What was strangest, though, was the utter silence with which Five moved. It was as if she were some kind of ghost.

Then, suddenly, she stopped. Rainbow Dash spread her wings to slow herself- -and landed directly in a tall bush. She struggled against it and fell to the ground.

“Your speed, that is impressive,” said Five, staring past the bushes into a clearing, her voice a whisper so silent that it was nearly impossible to hear. “But your vision is terrible. Consider glasses.”

“Why you…!”

Five shoved her hoof into Rainbow Dash’s mouth. It tasted oddly familiar.

“Look,” whispered Five.

Rainbow Dash did, looking through the brush into a clearing. She had not noticed it before- -at least not initially- -but there was a fire lit in the middle of it. Several ponies were sitting around it, talking and laughing- -except they were not all ponies. Three of them were- -two earth ponies, one of them rather large, and a unicorn mare. The other three, however, were not ponies at all. Two of them were diamond dogs dressed in partial armor, and the third was, of all things, a sheep who appeared to be playing with a small dog beside her.

“What are we looking at?” asked Gell, pressing her large head between Five and Rainbow Dash.

Rainbow Dash cried out, jumping in into the air. She was still unaccustomed to Gell’s appearance, and having a demon seem to materialize next to her was somewhat shocking. In fright, she jumped through the bushes and into the clearing.

The laughter of the ponies around the fire stopped, and all of them looked at her as she stood up.

“Uh, hi,” she said, waving, noticing how the diamond dogs were immediately reaching toward their weapons.

“Don’t shoot,” sighed Five, pushing through the shrubbery into the clearing and standing alongside Rainbow Dash. “Or do, if you really want to. But we nonetheless are not intending harm to you.”

“Do I smell bacon?” said Gell, pushing through the trees and appearing beside Five.

“Are you…sure?” said one of the earth ponies around the fire, looking up at Gell.

“Yes, I am,” said Five. “We are travelers.”

“What is your business,” growled one of the diamond dogs.

“We are weary from travel, and were hoping to share your fire.”

They looked to each other for a moment, as if considering- -and then the largest of the earth ponies among them stood. He was massive, and partially dressed in something that could be considered a kind of armor. Rainbow Dash saw that there was a peculiar lump on his back, a machine of some sort- -and recalled the auto-turrets that Celestia’s soldiers had carried during the Choggoth War.

“Sure,” he said, his voice surprisingly deep and his expression surprisingly harsh. “But I want something in return.” He approached them slowly, and his eyes locked on Rainbow Dash. “I want her.”

“Wait, what?” said Rainbow Dash, taking several steps backward. “What do you mean you want me?”

“Sure,” said Five, slapping Rainbow Dash’s rump and forcing her to jump forward- -directly into the waiting arms of the huge, red-coated stallion. “She is rather athletic, so I think she will do well.”

He stared directly down at Rainbow Dash, his green eyes looking into hers hungrily, his smile widening with every second. “Oh, yes…I am going to enjoy this!”

The stallion looked over his shoulder and nodded to the other earth pony. That pony nodded and produced a machine, something long and metallic- -like a gun. As he held it, however, it opened into something that Rainbow Dash did not recognize- -or cared to recognize. She was too busy trying to escape the strong grip of her captor.

Then, suddenly, the air was filled with fiddle music. Rainbow Dash looked over the stallion’s shoulder to see that the device his comrade had produced was some kind of fold out violin, and he had started to play it. She did not have long to watch, however, as she was thrown back suddenly.

At first she did not know what was happening, but then it clicked in her mind. The motions of the red stallion, the rythimic playing of the fiddle- -they were dancing.

“Oh,” she said, smiling, cursing her dirty mind. “Well, if that’s how you want it!”

She moved her body to the music, separating from the stallion as they both twirled, producing a set of moves that were fine-tuned from years of hoe-downs at Applejack’s various family functions.

“That’s the spirit!” said the stallion, looking overjoyed. The two marched back together, and they linked arms- -Rainbow Dash’s being metal, and the stallion’s being plated with armor and various machines- -and spun rapidly around each other to the rapid playing of the fiddle.

The others seemed to join in as well. The diamond dogs stood up and began dancing vigorously like fools, periodically slapping each other and calling out meaningless lyrics that seemed oddly appropriate. Even the sheep was clapping, at least until Gell took her hoof and danced with her, the dog running around them, itself trying to dance. The unicorn mare would have as well, but she was too busy being consumed by laughter so thorough that it was potentially hazardous. Five, meanwhile, simply watched.

The song lasted for several minutes, but like all songs, it eventually came to an end. Out of breath and sweating, Rainbow Dash and the stallion fell to their seats on opposite sides of the fire. Gell dipped her sheep partner deeply, briefly winking, and then set her back down on her seat as well. The diamond dogs continued with their chaotic hootenanny as the others got their breath, before they too fell to the ground, both laughing nearly as hard as the unicorn- -who, by this point, was rolling in the grass with them.

“You, you are good,” said the red stallion, pointing at her. “Oh, wow. I love Pegasi. Hey, did any of you guys get a picture?”

“Ah did,” said the sheep.

“Post that one! Me, dancing with Rainbow Dash!”

“You know my name?” said Rainbow Dash, surprised.

“Of course,” said the other earth pony, retracting his fiddle. “What are you, like, an impersonator?”

“Yeah,” said the sheep. “Like the Bovis Presley guys in Los Pegasus!”

“No, I’m the real- -”

“Best one I ever met,” said Five. Then, somehow, without moving her mouth, she spoke to Rainbow Dash- -not thorough words, but in her mind. “Unless you want to appear insane,” she said in a voice that was bone-chillingly familiar, “try not to claim to be a mare known to be dead for four centuries.”

As much as it pained her to admit it, Rainbow Dash knew that Five was correct- -even though she hated it, she realized that trying to claim to be the genuine Rainbow Dash would be like a unicorn trying to claim to be Starswirl the Bearded back in her own time.

“Yeah,” she sighed. “You got me. But hey, I think I can fly at least twice as fast as she could.”

“Doubtful,” said the smaller earth pony. “Nopony can fly as fast as Rainbow Dash- -even the full cyborgs!”

That somehow filled Rainbow Dash with pride. It actually surprised her that her legacy had lasted so long- -even after all that time, she was still the best. Which, in its own way, made her somewhat sad.

“Dancing fun!” said one of the diamond dogs, helping his friend up. The two of them were panting heavily and sat back from the fire where the air was cool.

“You are from the Red-Emerald state,” said Five, pointing to the badly-painted insignias on their armor.

“Yes, we is,” said the other, puffing out his chest in pride that they had been recognized.

“That is how I knew they were not our enemies,” said Five to Rainbow Dash. “The Red-Emeralds are known for thick skulls and noble hearts. They refuse assistance to the wicked.”

“This is right,” said the diamond dog. “We strong warriors. Very thick skulls, very warm hearts. Soft fur on bath days.”

The other leaned closer. “Bath days not common.”

“We know,” said the unicorn mare, brushing herself off.

“And the rest of you?” asked Rainbow Dash. “I mean, what are you doing all the way out here? A hike?”

They all laughed. “No, no,” said the red stallion. “We are contractors. Gene hunters. I am Mountain. He is On Roof, she is Sharpshooter, and the one on the end is Wolf-In-Clothing.”

“And Shep,” said the sheep, giving her dog a big hug.

“Our guides here are Numnuts and Rumplebottom. I think.”

“Yes,” said one of the diamond dogs, giving a thumbs up.

“Except sometimes,” said On Roof, leaning close to Rainbow Dash, “they forget which one is which.”

Rainbow Dash giggled. The fiddler earth pony smiled at her.

“Is true,” said the diamond dog, shrugging. “But momma-dog say that if we can remember our name, we are too smart to be good proper soldier. Knowing names not important if know how to fight.”

“And- -what is it, exactly, that you do again?”

“Gene hunters,” said the unicorn, sitting close to Mountain. “It means we hunt down samples of rare creatures and plants for study and research.”

“So…you’re researchers?”

“No,” said Wolf-In-Clothing. “Moah lahk hunters.”

“You’re…a sheep.”

“Do you have a problem with that?”

“No- -no, it’s just that, I’ve never seen a sheep doing this sort of thing before.”

“Yeah, I get yah,” said Wolf-In-Clothing, leaning back. “But ain’t nopony can do trackin lahk me and shep can.”

“We were on the trail of some wandering hyphae,” said Mountain. “But they took to ground a few hours back. So, break time. And fiddling.”

“Nasty things,” said On Roof, turning over his foreleg to reveal a painful looking circular burn. “Watch out, if you see them.”

“Mold took my dinner,” whined one of the diamond dogs.

“Oh yes,” said Sharpshooter. “It is quite carnivorous.”

“I’ll be sure to keep a look out,” said Gell, folding her legs beneath her and leaning close to the sheep.

“A demon, too,” said Mountain. “Quite a group…and quite a specimen of a demon pony as well…”

“You might just be big enough to try to take me on,” said Gell. “But honestly, you’re not exactly my type for any activity that you would enjoy much.”

“Do not be so sure,” he said, winking, and then burst into laughter. “A Rainbow Dash impersonator, a bat, a demon, and that marvelous bird…” his eyes moved to the simmering lump on Five’s back. “I was under the impression that they were extinct.”

“This may very well be the last,” said Five. “And she is my sister, so you may not have her.”

Mountain smiled. “Of course. I would sooner try to take Shep from Wolf-In-Clothing.”

“Do not even joke abouht that,” said Wolf-In-Clothing, glaring. “Yah never sep’rate a sheep from her sheep-dog.”

“Of course, of course,” said Mountain. “I would sooner dream of sleeping beside Sharpshooter than taking your dog.” He turned back to Five and Rainbow Dash, ignoring Sharpshooter’s angry- -and somewhat hurt- -glare. “So, travelers, you say. Do you carry stories?”

“Stories?” asked Rainbow Dash.

“Yes! One who dances as well as you surely has stories.”

Rainbow Dash felt a pang of sadness inside her. She had many stories, but they involved ponies who she had only recently learned that she had lost forever.

“Tell scary story,” said the diamond dogs, leaning forward.

“I could go for a ghost story,” said On Roof. “The only one I’ve got is the one about Woolie Swamp- -which is no fun because Wolf-In-Clothing is actually from there.”

“I know some good ones,” said Rainbow Dash, smiling, rubbing her hooves together. “Have any of you ever heard of the headless pony…?”

The story was amazingly effective. That was in part because of Rainbow Dash’s over-the-top storytelling style, but also from cultural dissidence- -she had tapped into a vein of body horror that had not existed in her own time. So, what had probably been a children’s tale in her own era became far, far more terrifying, if only because if its implications.

When she was done, the diamond dogs were cowering behind a the log they had formerly been sitting on.

“It- -it have no head,” one of them whimpered. “No head! How it see where it going?”

“No head…” whined the other.

“No brain, no eyes, and yet still forced to be coherent,” whispered Sharpshooter. She and her friends- -aside from Wolf-In-Clothing- -were clearly disturbed by the story as well. They were even silent for a moment.

“Come now,” said Wolf-In-Clothing. “A pony cahnt live without ah head!”

“Oh, they can,” said Five. “I have seen it.”

Rainbow Dash turned and stared at her, her eyes wide. Five had never actually seen that phenomenon in her lifetime, but she understood that it was at least marginally possible.

“Maybe…maybe we should get something to eat,” said On Roof.

“Good…good idea,” said Mountain. They opened their bags and removed several packets of freeze-dried food. Mountain tossed a bottle and a packet to Rainbow Dash.

“What is this?” she said, catching it handily.

“Good dancer, good stories- -you deserve a drink.”

“What about you?” said Sharpshooter to Five. “Are you two going to eat?”

“We have…very specific dietary requirements,” said Five. “So no.”

“Not unless you want to donate,” whispered Gell, smiling.

So they took pause to eat. On Roof took a moment to explain to Rainbow Dash how to rehydrate her meal, and the diamond dogs producing their own food: two cans of beans, which they skewered with sticks and held over the fire. Five watched them, trying to hold her breath. The smell of food nauseated her terribly.

They were silent as they ate- -save for the sound of Five’s occasional dry heaving- -when On Roof spoke. “Hey, I’ve got a story,” he said. “And not the one about Woolie Swamp.” He looked over the fire at Rainbow Dash. “Have you ever heard of the Blue Fleet?”

His companions groaned loudly.

“Not again,” said Mountain. “Every time you meet somepony- -”

“It isn’t even real,” said Sharpshooter.

“It is too!” said On Roof, defensively.

“What is the Blue Fleet?” asked Rainbow Dash, who was by this time slightly drunk off the mead-like drink that she had been given.

They looked at her, their eyes wide. “Wait, you don’t even know what it is?”

“Is a myth,” said Wolf-In-Clothing.

“No it isn’t,” said On Roof. “My grandpappy saw it, and he maintained that he had until the day he died.” He leaned forward, setting his drink aside. His friends sighed, but they knew that he could not stop him from telling the story again. “It was back during the Invasion.” He pointed up at the sky, toward the pair of black holes in the sky. “When the Incurse came. Billions of them, pouring through. At first they came in small numbers, invading, infiltrating, but more came. More always came, until all of Equestria was at war. Even Thebe could not stop all of them…

“Then, one day, there came the final battle. My grandpappy was just a colt, but it isn’t something he ever forgot- -the sight of millions of ships in the sky, bigger than any airship ever made at that time, all made of strange metal. That day, they knew it was the end.”

“But what happened?” said Rainbow Dash. On Roof smiled- -it seemed like a long time since he had actually found somepony interested in his tale.

“The Blue Fleet. Thousands of blue ships came from nowhere. They joined the fight with Thebe. The sky was filled with fire- -but they did not work like normal machines.” He paused. “I don’t know what he meant when he said it. Maybe I never will. But grandpappy said that they weren’t machines- -that they didn’t look like it. They were more like…well, he said ‘like somepony pulled apart everything in the garage, and several ponies, and put the pieces back together better, but wrong’. The things were alive though… and they couldn’t die. When one got killed, it just split and made two, or rejoined to one of the others.”

“Wow,” said Rainbow Dash. “Did…did they win?”

“We are here, aren’t we?”

“Is a myth,” said Wolf-In-Clothing. “Not real. It was Thebe alone who sent them back tah the Beyond.”

“No, it wasn’t,” said Gell. They all turned to her. She looked at them, somewhat annoyed that she now needed to speak. Five could tell that she was legitimately considering eating them. “I was there,” she said. “I saw it.” She pointed at Five. “So was her mother. We fought in the Invasion.”

“No way,” said Mountain. “If you mother was in the war, you would be…”

“I am sixty three years old,” admitted Five.

“No way!” exclaimed Rainbow Dash, jumping into the air. “You’re so…so old.”

“You are one to talk,” said Five, motioning for Rainbow Dash to sit back down.

“Wow…” said On Roof. “You must have heard some stories.”

“In a way,” said Five.

“And you must have some things to tell,” said Mountain.

“Perhaps,” said Five, smiling, her eyes momentarily flickering toward the darkness at the edge of the forest. “Do you want to see something quite frightening?”

“No,” whined a diamond dog.

“Sure,” said Mountain. “Although I doubt it will be worse than the headless pony.”

Five looked toward Sharpshooter. “Might you have a flashlight? Or, actually, since you hail from Trottingham: a ‘torch’.”

“Sure,” said Sharphooter, slowly, digging in her supplies with her magic and withdrawing the item in question. She passed it to Five, who took it in her claws.

“Darn it,” said Rainbow Dash. “If I knew we had that I could have told my story so much better!”

Five lifted the light and pointed it toward the forest, not turning it on, slowly moving it. Instinctively, the others watched where it was pointing, even though there was no beam of light for their eyes to trace.

Then, suddenly, Five flicked on the device. A beam of light suddenly illuminated a misshapen, eyeless skull just beyond the light of their fire. The ponies around the fire screamed- -as did the creature, which squealed in anger and ducked into the brush nearby, rustling as it escaped the light.

“What was that?” said Mountain, deploying his turret as the others picked up their guns.

“That,” said Five, who remained perfectly calm, “was a chupacabra. It’s been circling for some time, watching.”

“Where did it go? I can’t track see it- -”

“Somepony here must have some goat heritage,” said Five, her eyes shifting toward Wolf-In-Clothing, who was suddenly terribly nervous.

“I think I am going to sleep in the ship,” said On Roof, moving slowly across the clearing, watching the darkness carefully, but obvioiusly not seeing anything. “And I think I’m going to go to bed right now.”

“Me too,” said Mountain.

“Ah am not tahred,” said Wolf-In-Clothing, “but Shep’s had a hahrd day. So…”

Five watched as they all retreated to their ship. They even allowed the diamond dogs inside, and closed the door, leaving only Sharpshooter outside, perched on the top with her rifle, scanning the darkness.

“Should we be worried?” said Rainbow Dash, looking to Five.

“No,” said Five. “Chupacabra are vampire, and only to goats. Actually, they are invisible most of the time. You would not even have an awareness of being bit- -if you were a goat. You’re not, are you?”

“No. Of course not.”

“Good.”

“But why did you show it to them if it wasn’t dangerous?”

“Because it was funny.” Five leaned back, sitting on the cold grass behind the log, away from the fire. “I thought they would enjoy being afraid.”

“Not like that!” said Rainbow Dash. “I just told a story. You scared them for real!”

“Fear itself is inherently false. It is never real.”

Rainbow Dash glared down at Five for a moment, but then just sighed. “That was pretty cool, though.”

“Ponies from the present time,” mused Five. “How do you feel about them?”

“There not really any different from ponies in my time, I guess. Although…” she snickered. “A sheep?”

“Slavery has been abolished,” said Five, only partially joking. “And Equestira, you will find, is far more cosmopolitan. Actually, it does bring up an interesting fact.”

“What?”

“Do you know the name of the first pony to marry a sheep?”

Rainbow Dash shivered. “That’s just…wrong.” She looked at Five. “Who did it, though?”

“The brother of your friend Applejack.”

“WHAT?” cried Rainbow Dash.

“Don’t yell. And yes. This is a known historical fact. He actually played an important role in the early sheep civil rights movement.”

“Big Macintosh…was a wooly whumper?” She started giggling, and then broke into laughter. “Oh! I totally can see that! A farmer and his sheep!”

“Quiet, you!” called Sharpshooter. “Go to bed!”

Rainbow Dash clapped her hooves over her moth, but that only resulted in converting her laughter into a saliva-filled, partially suppressed snort.

“It isn’t really something to laugh at,” said Gell. “My personal rule: if words come out when it tries, I go between the thighs. Well, save for fillies I guess. That’s not my speed.”

Rainbow Dash fell to the ground and rolled around, Gell’s rhyme having only accelerated her laughter. She was also blushing heavily.

“Well,” said Five, “at least she is enjoying herself.”

Five knew that she should have been at least marginally content that Rainbow Dash had managed to laugh. She was not, though. The sound of ponies laughing was grating to her- -but she did not know why.

Chapter 13: The Death of Rainbow Dash

View Online

“How is the fit?” asked Twilight, checking the cloth suit that covered Rainbow Dash’s body.

“A bit tight,” said Rainbow Dash. The suit itself was actually only slightly tighter than her spandex Wonderbolt’s uniform, but the fabric was far thicker and stiffer. “It feels way to heavy.”

“You’re gonna need it,” said the Pegasus helping attach her equipment. He was one of the support staff that served the Wonderbolts. His name was Preflight Check, and Rainbow Dash knew him well. He was a critical part of her squad. Although he himself was not an expert fighter, his eye for detail was even better than Twilight’s. His job was to manage the equipment- -wing augmentation, weapons loadout, special gear, and so forth- -a position that had only formed relatively recently with the ever-increasing number of technological toys that were becoming available for the Equestrian Air Force.

“Why?” asked Rainbow Dash.

“Because after two miles up, the air gets cold. Nopony’s gone that high in years. And you’re going to go a lot higher.”

“Rainbow,” said Twilight, helping to insect the gear herself, looking over Preflight Check’s shoulder at ever strap and zipper. “Are you sure you want to go through with this?”

“Um, of course?” said Rainbow Dash, lifting her wings for more equipment to be strapped onto her body. “Nopony else can do it. And besides, I’m always glad to help our- -especially when it means doing something this epic!”

Twilight smiled, but she still looked nervous. She took a deep breath. “To be absolutely honest, Rainbow, this isn’t exactly safe…”

“Don’t worry about it,” said Rainbow Dash. “I mean, who do you think you’re talking to?”

“This isn’t going to be like performing a sonic rainboom,” warned Twilight. “It requires precision timing. But if all my calculations are good…you should be able to pull it off. Now stand very, very still.”

“Why?”

Twilight lowered her horn, and with a glow of purple magic Rainbow Dash suddenly felt strange, as if her skin were pulling close around her. It was an odd and uncomfortable feeling, but it actually made her clothing feel better.

“What was that?” she asked.

“A reinforcing spell,” said Twilight. “Just in case.” She smiled. “Okay. I’m going to admit it- -I’m really excited. If this works, the readings we get could revolutionize the entire field of kinetic magic, and several laws of physics.”

“As long as I get to go fast, I don’t mind all the egg-head stuff.”

“Oh, you’ll be going fast,” said Twilight, her expression of fear returning. “Actually, nopony has gone this fast since the Aurasi.”

“Aura-what?”

“Oh,” Twilight said, seeming not to realize that Rainbow Dash was not well versed in much ancient lore. “They were like Pegasi, but bigger, and made of gold.”

“Gold?” said Rainbow Dash. “Gold is heavy. How did they fly?”

“I have no idea. But they did.”

“And one of them did this quarry Celestia thing?”

“Quantum-celestial acceleration,” corrected Twilight. “That’s what you’re trying to do here. It’s like a sonic rainboom, except instead of going faster than sound, you go faster than light- -which shouldn’t even be possible.”

“And one of these gold-guys did that?” asked Rainbow Dash. She was annoyed that somepony was outdoing here- -even if they had been dead for millions of years.

“Yes. Twice. But for some reason, there’s no eyewitness accounts of it.”

“So let me get this straight,” said Rainbow Dash. “You’re asking me to try to break a speed record set by a golden pony over a million years ago that nopony has ever seen since. Is that what you’re asking me to do?”

“You don’t have to if you don’t want to. In fact, because of the danger, I would recommend- -”
“That. Is so. AWSOME!” ‘

“Stop moving,” said Preflight Check. “Or you are going to get pinched.”

“Sorry,” said Rainbow Dash. “Just really really really really excited!”

“Yeah,” said Preflight Check. “Just be careful. Spitfire and the others are going to be watching- -and a lot of spectators as well. Don’t choke. And if you pull this off- -hay, if you even almost pull this off- -your almost guaranteed a promotion.”

“So. Cool,” whispered Rainbow Dash as her auxiliary air tanks were mounted to her sides, weighing her down even further.

“Rainbow,” said Twilight, once again fully serious. “Please. Please be careful. If you need to bail at any time, sacrifice the experiment, not yourself. Nothing is more important than your life.”

“Wow, Twilight. Come on. If you keep talking like that, I might lose confidence.”

“I’m serious, Rainbow. Test pilots have gotten injured- -badly- -in horizontal flights. And you are going to do a firmament dive. Rainbow, I don’t know what I would do if I lost you…”

“Come on, Twi,” said Rainbow Dash, putting her hoof on her friend’s shoulder. “I’m the best that there is, remember? Look, I promise to come back- -safe, sound, and a full twenty percent more awesome. Here. Just to be sure.”

Before Preflight Check sealed her collar, Rainbow Dash reached into her jacket and removed a thin golden chain. The end of it contained a small flat amulet with the Wonderbolts insignia, as well as another mark indicating Rainbow Dash’s name and rank.

“You’re tags,” said Twilight. “No, I can’t take that- -”

“Relax, Twi. You’re a princess, so I’m pretty sure it’s okay. Besides, I’m going to get them back in a few hours. Right?”

Twilight smiled and took the tags. “Right.”

Rainbow Dash had reviewed the order of steps hundreds of times, but as she approached the runway, she reviewed them again in her mind. The steps themselves were simple, but deliciously insane, even when Twilight managed to explain them in excessively egg-headish detail.

The main element of the task was to perform something called a firmament dive. As Rainbow Dash understood it, the sky- -which she had always imagined as infinite and vast- -had a boundary, an upper limit. That limit was, literally, as high as any pony could ever fly. Rainbow Dash’s first task was to rise to that border, to set hoof upon it- -something that alone would be tremendously important in the history of Pegasi. Just the thought of doing that made her wings tingle with excitement.

That was just the easy part, though. Once she reached it, she was to dive as steep as possible, driving herself forward as rapidly as possible. She would fall back to Equestria, reaching speeds far faster than the rainboom threshold- -and then was expected to turn.

That turn was the reason why she alone could perform this test. She needed to level a dive at supersonic speeds- -something that no other pony would be able to do. The force alone risked tearing her wings off, but she knew that it would be possible- -and even if she failed, Twilight was prepared to teleport her to safety to prevent her from being splattered on the ground.

Once she leveled, she would engage the rockets that were not strapped to her body beneath her wings. They were something Twilight had been working on for months, a kind of magical engine. They had been tested numerous times in horizontal flights, but they proved to be both dangerous and limited. The amount of magic the enchanted crystals within contained could not be dissipated fast enough to make a pony go much faster than the rainboom barrier, and the pony who used them had to be an excellent flier to control the sudden surge of speed.

For a long time, Rainbow Dash had thought that using magic with flight was cheating. It just seemed wrong to use such a thing to tarnish the purity of flying. That was, at least, until she saw the results. Then she had known that magic-assisted flight was the future. The speed and the rush of flying under the power of engines was something that she had never expected, the feeling of flying with a machine roaring beneath her wings. It was still no match for real flying, but it had its own charms.

As she entered the runway, the world seemed to move in slow motion. She could hear her breathing on the inside of her mask, and smell the air pumped in from her oxygen tanks. Looking around, she saw the sight that she had become accustomed to. All around her were spectators, many in the fields around the airstrip, but many in the large airships that surrounded the runway.

Only official personnel were allowed on the runway itself- -as well as her friends, who had been given special authorization for the event.

Rainbow Dash waved to them- -her five core friends, save for Twilight, who was setting up observation equipment with her research team- -and Scootaloo. She then saluted Spitfire, and her comrades who had come to observe.

Even of the noise of all the cheering from the crowds, she heard Fluttershy’s small “yay”, and Pinkie Pie called something out.

“Hey Rainbow Dash!” she yelled. “When you get back, I’ve got a killer party planned! A great big cake for all these ponies!”

“Rainbow?” said Twilight, approaching. Rainbow Dash turned and looked at her friend. “Are you sure?”

“Absolutely. Wouldn’t want to disappoint all my fans, would I?”

“Just be careful. And thank you.”

“No problem. Now, you might want to stand back.”

Twilight stepped back, as did the rest of the crew, and Rainbow Dash paused for a moment, soaking in the pause of cheers as suspense gripped the crowd. Then she spread her wings, and listened to silence fall in the crowd- -then, with her full force, she shot upward. At one hundred feet, a circular jet of rainbow energy poured from around her, bending into the cone shape characteristic of an ascension rainboom.

She knew it had not been necessary. Upward speed had no bearing on the test- -but she did not want to disappoint her fans. That, and, on some level, she was nervous- -and wanted to get to the good part as quickly as possible.

The air rushed past her as she powered forward, watching the clouds separate as she passed them. On the lower ones, some Pegasi were waiting to cheer her on as she rose through the air faster than most ponies could dive, but as she got higher, the clouds got too thin to support Pegasi. At the same time, she felt the air changing. It got thinner, and she had to power her wings faster to keep moving at the same speed. As Preflight Check had predicted, it also became much colder. The suit that surrounded most of her body compensated for some of it, but her wings had to be exposed, and they were starting to ice.

So pushed harder, hoping that there was enough air onboard to sustain her. She had already passed the maximum altitude for most recommended flying as well as her personal record- -but the firmament was still miles away.

It took nearly half an hour for her to begin to move past Equestria’s atmosphere. The sky itself had changed- -now, instead of blue, it looked black, and the horizon between the green and blue world below and the darkness above was becoming visible.

She could feel the heat of the sun- -and see it, far larger than she ever had. Even at a distance of hundreds of miles, it still was powerful enough to instantly melt the ice from her wings. From what she understood, the sun, like the moon, was imbedded inside the firmament. Theoretically, she could have flown to the sun, like the Icarus of legend, but that was already known to be a terrible idea.

Through her mask, Rainbow Dash scanned for the signs of the firmament. She was not entirely sure what she was looking form, but she had been given certain signs. The stars, for example, would be imbedded in it, as were several artificial, unreachable objects that had only recently been discovered- -objects that Twilight suggested were made by someponies called “cerorians”.

Then she saw them. The stars, and the strange, semi-translucent substance that contained them. Up close, they did not look like what she had expected. They were far smaller and far brighter, consisting of looping arcs of Luna’s magic that clung tightly to their backing. Even stranger, they seemed to be watching, as if they somehow had eyes and minds within them.

Rainbow Dash slowed herself, but found, to her astonishment, that the familiar pull to Equestria below had diminished. Instead, when she stopped moving her wings through the impossibly thin air, she simply drifted- -until she struck something somehow solid.

The contact was extremely disorienting. Rainbow Dash found herself standing on what her mind automatically perceived as “grouond”, even though the real ground, Equestria, was now the “sky”. The inversion was nauseating and amazing at the same time.

The texture of the firmament was not pleasant, either. Rainbow Dash had expected something hard, like glass, but instead it was more gelatinous, like thick mud, and she felt her feet sticking as she walked along it.

She suddenly cried out as something moved. To her disbelief, a head suddenly poked out of the firmament- -and she saw a face that, to her greatest annoyance, had become an increasingly common sight in recent years.

The sickly green pony with a single antler-like horn pulled himself out of the firmament until he was only waste deep.

“Oh, hey,” he said. “Don’t bother saying anything. There’s no air up here; sound doesn’t travel. Also, FYI, no, I did not break you record. I’m not a pony. Well, sort of. Mostly. I am butter.” He leaned back, backstroking through the thick firmament aether. “Oh, also, when you get down there, say hi to Brown for me. And tell me he still owes me three bits.”

Rainbow Dash had no idea what he was talking about, but did as she always did when things involved Buttery Snake- -she simply ignored him. She instead took one last look at the firmament, and at the view of Equestria above her- -and did her job.

She released the firmament, and started her descend. At first, she simply drifted- -but then she could feel the force of gravity upon her once again, and used it to guide herself into the steepest dive possible.

She accelerated. She could feel it, even if she could not see it- -the frame of reference was simply too vast, and the air too thin, but by some Pegasus instinct, she knew that she was moving, and moving quickly.

Almost as soon as she started, the air around her shook and ruptured with a rainboom, showering the world below with a rainbow- -but that only signaled Rainbow Dash to move her wings faster, to drive herself down with even greater speed. In a moment of daring, she adjusted her angle- -to a complete vertical.

The air around her shifted again, and she felt a second rainboom pour out of her. She could see Twilight’s magic ignite into a shield around her, burning from the heat of reentry. Even through the shield, she could feel the air passing by her at impossible speed, and she gritted her teeth against the feeling of losing control.

A third rainboom came, and then a forth, and Rainbow Dash felt an indescribable pleasure running through her body. It was the height of adrenaline- -pure fear, and the finest, sharpest form of excitement. It was something she had not felt in years- -and the reason she had been so vehement about assisting Twilight with this particular test.

The air seemed to distort again, but this time, something was different. It was not just the air that was changing- -it was space itself. She realized that, somehow, she was not alone. She glanced to her side, momentarily expecting to see Buttery Snake trying to steal her thunder, but instead gasped as she saw a bizarre ghostly figure descending beside her. It was larger than her, but clearly a pony- -a pony who seemed to be made from plates of gold. He apparently could not see Rainbow Dash, but she could see him- - and how he seemed to be laughing manically.

Then another rainboom occurred, this one large enough to spread a corona of color out over the entire continent- -and Rainbow Dash felt herself accelerating uncontrollably, the force of the rainboom driving her forward even more rapidly.

As she moved faster, the golden figure beside her seemed to notice her, and turned toward her- -revealing that he only had one eye. It was about that time that Rainbow Dash looked down. Her mind reeled as she saw how fast the world was flying up toward her- -and, terrified, realized the true extent of her speed.

She was only seconds away from impact, and she spread her wings. The force was incrediable, and she clenched her jaw as her feathers were torn out. With all her strength, she forced herself out of the dive. The bones in her wings creaked, and then cracked. She knew that if even one of them failed, there would be no escape from the resulting death spiral- -but there was no choice.

Rainbow Dash put her trust in Twilight’s magic, and twisted her wings.

The crowd below must have been treated to an incredible sight as Rainbow Dash fell. They were silent, many fully expecting her to plummet to her death- -but just feet from the ground, Rainbow Dash pulled out of the dive, channeling the force of her downward descend into horizontal motion.

She could not hear the roar of the cheers through the roar of the wind passing her body, and she felt the world starting to go dark. Her flight suit automatically compensated, though, inflating internal sacks to force the blood back to her brain and wings- -and even with fractured wings, she managed to level her flight.

For a moment, she was overjoyed, high on a thrill unlike any she had experienced in her life- -but then she remembered that her work was not done. She reached onto her chest- -not an easy task, considering the force of the wind against her legs- -and activated the magical thrusters.

Her speed instantly quadrupled, and she felt herself being rushed forward, the trees around her blurring into a single green mass. The world itself suddenly burst into flame and energy around her, and she felt her speed change- -as if she were suddenly slowing. She did not know why, or how, but she somehow felt a reason¬- -as if the world were resisting her acceleration, as if the laws of physics themselves did not want her to succeed.

In response, and with a smile, she lowered her wings and head and forced herself forward just slightly faster- -and felt the roar of the universe snapping around her as reality suddenly vanished.

Chapter 14: Sentinels of the Gohh

View Online

Rainbow Dash cried out as she awoke. She looked up to the night sky, and realized that it was not really night at all- -and the memories of what had happened to her, including all her sadness, rushed back to her. As she started to calm down, she was slapped with a metal-clad hoof.

“Ow!” she cried, releasing the log that she had apparently been spooning. “What the Buck!”

“Quiet,” hissed Five. “You snoring is attracting predators!”

“Ha ha. Very funny,” said Rainbow Dash, rolling over and seeing the still-glowing embers of the fire. “You didn’t need to hit me- -”

“I’m not joking!” whispered Five, harshly. “Stand up!”

Rainbow Dash looked up, and from the expression she could see on Five’s face, she realized that something really was wrong. Five was standing perfectly still, her eyes flicking from location to location in the darkness beyond the clearing. Rainbow Dash became distantly aware of a strange, distant sound. It was a kind of intermittent buzzing that she could not entirely dismiss as crickets.

“Move very very slowly,” warned Five in an almost inaudible whisper. “And be very quiet.”

Rainbow Dash did so, feeling the urgency in Five’s voice- -and also saw that Five was holding a squarish rifle.

“This isn’t good,” said Five. She raised her hand and made several signs. Rainbow Dash followed Five’s eye, just in time to see Sharpshooter- -still lying belly-down on the top of her transport vehicle, her much larger rifle slowly searching the edge of the forest- -nod and whisper into a device on her wrist. “They shouldn’t be this far north…”

“What?” asked Rainbow Dash. She suddenly gasped- -she saw something moving in the trees beyond. It was like an animal, or even like the chupacabra had been. Something the size of a pony was moving through the forest slowly and deliberately, but somehow without making a single sound. The buzzing was growing louder. “What- -what are those?”

“I messed up,” whispered Five, who now seemed to be on the verge of panic- -something that made Rainbow Dash extremely nervous. “I really, thoroughly messed up.”

“Five,” hissed Rainbow Dash. “What are those things?”

“Gohh,” she said, and then, rapidly correcting herself incase Rainbow Dash took it as an imperative, “they are called gohh.”

“Not helpful,” whispered Rainbow Dash, annoyed.

The buzzing shifted immediately after Rainbow Dash spoke, and she realized that there was only one possible source of it- -whatever Five was seeing, that was what was making the sound.

“Help…me,” called a voice from the forest. It was high and strange- -as if it were being spoken through some kind of machine, or modulated by something that had no real mouth. “I need…help…”

Rainbow Dash’s instincts took hold, and she spread her wings- -only to feel a metal claw holding her leg tightly enough to be painful.

“Let me go!” she said, perhaps too loudly. “Somepony needs help!”

“No!” hissed Five. “That is not a pony! They’re trying to lure you!”

“Please…” said the voice, now modulated differently, and now from behind them, sounding almost like a filly. “It is…dark…come help me…”

“The gohh…they have me,” said another, eerily without the inflection that would be associated with a captured pony. In her heart, Rainbow Dash wanted to spring into action and save them- -but in her mind, and perhaps even deeper, she knew that those distorted, hissing voices really were not ponies.

Then the sound changed. The buzzing rose into a chorus of horrific screams. They came from every angle and every direction- -and Rainbow Dash realized that they were surrounded by unseen creatures that now sounded as though they were being horribly tortured, like ponies being devoured by endless swarms of enormous bees.

Rainbow Dash instinctively spread her wings.

“No!” said Five, “if you fly, they fly! They are trying for a reaction! Don’t. Move!”

The screaming stopped as quickly as it had come, and so did the buzzing. For a moment, Rainbow Dash thought that whatever the “gohh” were had gone- -until she saw a wiry leg step out from the shadows.

When she saw them, she held her breath. She did not know exactly what she had been expecting that they looked like- -and she wished they had retained their anonymity. The shadowy, silhouetted creatures that suddenly emerged from the woods were defintly pony sized, but only distantly pony shaped. They had four legs, but the legs were far too thin, and their motion was jerky and sudden. Their long, bizarre bodies glinted in a way that caused Rainbow Dash to infer that they were smooth, and she immediately thought of enormous ants- -but ants that were somehow inverted, or contorted in some way that did not seem evolutionarily logical.

They moved almost randomly through the edge of their clearing. As they got closer, Rainbow Dash could see that they had numerous antennae that were waving rapidly- -and that, as Five had predicted, they did, indeed, have wings. They had more than two, though; it appeared that they had at least three pairs.

“What are those things?” said Rainbow Dash, still not comprehending. She clapped her hoofs over her mouth as one of them seemed to look up and smell the air. “Can they hear us?” she whispered even more quietly.

“I don’t know,” whined Five. “I don’t even know if they can see. I don’t know anything about them…well…except…”

“What?”

“They’re attracted to technology and magic,” she said, glancing down first at her own gauntlets, and then at Rainbow Dash’s prosthetics. “And…”

“And what?”

“No pony has ever survived an encounter with them…”

One of them suddenly looked up and lurched forward. Rainbow Dash and Five both held their breath. The creature passed through the dim light of the fire, and Rainbow Dash saw it clearly. Its head- -or what she took to be its head- -was actually a smooth, transparent plate. Behind that chitins plate was a swirling mass of dark green material, like swamp muck. As that head approached her, the material inside moved itself, and several yellow eyes opened, staring at her.

“Hey, Five,” said Rainbow Dash, turning slightly as the gohh stared at her, its clawed legs clicking forward as more seemed to join it. “Do robot arms feel pain?”

“No,” said Five, appearing confused.

“And are they stronger than regular legs?”

“Yes…about five times…” Five’s eyes suddenly widened in realization. She shook head rapidly, barely moving it so as not to disturb the creatures that were rapidly approaching her. “No! You woundn’t!”

Rainbow Dash smiled, and she slowly shifted her stance for more leverage. Then, without giving a moment of warning, she screamed out as she brought her robotic left hoof into an uppercut directly against the gohh’s head.

The force was enough to crack its chitinous shell, and the creature stumbled backward, confused and releasing a mewing hiss of surprise.

“I didn’t come all this way to get eaten by big bugs!” cried Rainbow Dash. “I’m not going down without a fight!”

She lifted herself into the air, but the gohh reacted quickly. The swarmed her, grabbing onto her, pulling her to the ground. She punched several with tremendous force, but there were too many. For a moment, she thought that she might finally get to join her friends on the other side.

Rainbow Dash felt a claw cut down her side, producing a shallow but painful cut. She reached out to punch the creature that did it- -but saw that they all immediately backed away from her.

“Cowards!” she said, standing. “Fight me like properly!”

“Don’t provoke them!” said Five, now completely ignoring her request for quiet. She, it seemed, had remained nearly perfectly still as Rainbow Dash had been attacked and had herself been largely spared.

The creatures backed away and looked to each other, confused. They were hissing loudly, but not in the same way as before. Instead, they were producing odd warbling sounds.

“What is happening?” said Rainbow Dash, prepared to fight.

“No idea,” said Five.

Then, suddenly and without warning, they all took flight. Not just those that were in the main clearing, but the ones in the woods as well. Rainbow Dash saw them flying through the sky like locusts- -and she saw that there were far more than she had ever expected.

The one that had cut her paused, momentarily looking down at its blood-stained claw. Then, as if reaching a conclusion, snapped off the limb and flew away itself, leaving it behind.

Rainbow Dash and Five stood for a moment, even after they insects had gone. Then they looked at each other. Five slowly stepped forward toward the leg and- -with great care- -collected it.

“What. The actual. Buck!” cried Rainbow Dash. “How the hay did my snoring do that?!”

“That is grammatically incorrect,” said Five, examining the limb, “as no actual bucking was done this day.”

“Those things, those monsters- -where did they go? Why did they go? And where in Tartarus is Gell?”

“Sleeping,” said Five. “She hates being outside. And don’t rely on her. As for the gohh, I have no idea. Really, none. Not a drop. Perhaps you scared them off.”

“Ha,” said Rainbow Dash. “I bet I did. Can’t blame them, though. I am pretty awesome in a fight.”

“Except you aren’t,” said Five, suddenly becoming extremely serious. “That was an anomaly- -I very nearly watched you get turned into soup. Are you trying to die, Rainbow Dash? Is that what you- -oop. Just got the irony. Nevermind.”

Rainbow Dash looked at Five, completely confused. Five seemed to have become far more interested in the severed gohh limb, however, and had started ignoring Rainbow Dash completely. Rainbow Dash returned to the log that she had been spooning and sat on it. She threw some sticks onto the fire, knowing that there was no way she would be going back to sleep anytime soon.

She smiled weakly, though. For just a moment, this strange future had felt so much like her past.

Sharpshooter did not know what she was seeing. Before she had joined Mountain’s band of gene hunters, she had served several tours as a sniper in the United Coalition in the endless wars that so few Equestrians bothered to care about. She knew what gohh were- -at least as much as any soldier did- -and knew that they attacked without mercy or relent. They were, at times, the enemy- -but they usually only fought against Thebe’s personal golem army.

She had never expected to see them again. It had been her intention to burry those horrors in her past- -and then they had suddenly appeared. Silently, she cursed herself for not asking the travelers to sleep in the hover transport, and for not have seen the gohh coming. Admittedly, it was something virtually impossible. They were enemy soldiers that fought for an unknown enemy and an unknown cause, moss-like creatures wearing biological exoskeletons- -they simply should not have been in that region, not ever.

Five seemed to have been the first to notice them. She had spent the night disassembling and reassembling her rifle with surprising speed, and Sharpshooter had simply watched until the allotted time when Wolf-In-Clothing would take the watch. The Rainbow Dash impersonator had rapidly gone to sleep, and the demon had wandered off hours earlier and never returned.

Then, suddenly, Five had started to become agitated. She started looking around, and Sharpshooter watched as the components of her gun suddenly sparked with blue energy and reassembled themselves automatically. That alone would have been strange enough- -if it were not for the fact that, as Five started to slap the Rainbow Dash, a horrible hissing buzz filled the air. Sharpshooter immediately recognized it and froze, powering down all the magic spells she had surrounding her to make herself less apparent. That was the thing about gohh- -cloaking or stealth spells meant nothing to them; if there was magic or an active machine, they would find it an kill it.

She had taken up her gun, ready to give fire support, hoping that Five and Rainbow Dash could make it to the transport ship in time- -if only to hide. Even though she controlled her terror, as was her training, Sharpshooter knew that the instant the engines were turned on, the gohh would swarm them and tear through the metal like it was paper.

Five had given a hand signal, though, one that was of military origin- -meaning, essentially, “go on without us”. Sharpshooter had recognized her decision, and the heroism implicit in it: if Five and Rainbow Dash moved toward the ship, it would just attract the gohh.

Sharpshooter whispered into her wrist comlink. “Situation red,” she said. “Gohh infestations repeat gohh infestation. Power down everything!”

Then she had just watched, because it was all she could do. Rainbow Dash seemed to not be able to stay quiet, and it was attracting the gohh- -until the point where one of them actual appeared. From her training, Sharpshooter had been vaguely aware of what they looked like- -but she had not been prepared to actually face one. The sudden, rapid motions, the thin, insect-like legs, and the horrible sounds they made all reminded her of terrible things that lurked in dark, moldy places. Still, she got a bead on one of them, knowing fully well that bullets had no effect on gohh- -they had no real brains, or organs, so there was nothing to injure within them.

As she did, she switched on a small piece of technology she carried. It was a well-shielded part of her communication system, a device originally designed for soldiers deployed in gohh-controlled areas. It was meant to translate their words, or what they spoke instead of words.

As she flipped it on, she saw Rainbow Dash move suddenly- -and punch one of the gohh in the face. That was the single most brave and horrifically stupid thing she had ever seen, and she watched the gohh swarm the blue mare.

Before she could react- -or even look away from the carnage- -the gohh suddenly jumped back, all of them seeming confused. The translation module suddenly started to convert their buzzing and hissing into words.

“Aberration,” it said. The word was repeated many times by many different voices, each one modulated to a slightly different tone by the translation system.

“Not understood.”

“Out of place.”

“Time, wrong time!”

“Wrong time! Incorrect era!”

“Not understood!”

“Reaction?”

“Reaction unknown!”

“Contaminated? Contaminated! I am contaminated!”

“Do not attack.”

“Aberration unidentified.” Then, all together, “time traveler.”

“Further information needed.”

“Sentinel inadequate. Require further.”

“Further.”

“Further.”

“Home. Go home aberration.”

“Go home seventh race.”

“Go home.”

“Agreed.”

“Yes.”

Then they suddenly took flight- -so many of them that Sharpshooter could barely count them. She did not know what was happening, or understand what they had been talking about, or if the translation had even been correct- -but somehow, they were leaving.

“Thank Satin,” she said under her breath. As she watched, however, one gohh seemed to have a bad reaction. It did not leave with the others, and paused. Then it tore off its own limb and joined the others.

That limb alone, Sharpshooter knew, was worth millions. Precious few pieces of gohh exoskeleton were ever recovered, aside from those taken by Thebe and lost to ponykind forever. She tried to stand to jump down to take it, but found she could not. She was shaking too badly.

Instead, Five crossed the gap and picked up the limb. Sharpshooter was annoyed, but figured that the bat pony probably deserved it for what she had just gone through. Out in the field, the two continued to talk for a moment, and then went back to normal life, as if nothing had happened. Either they did not understand what had happened, or they were both something far more than ordinary travelers.

Sharpshooter collapsed against the ceiling of her group’s sky-van and rolled over, looking up at the starless blue-black sky. She tried to calm herself, but found that even as she became less afraid, she only became more confused. She did not know what the gohh had been saying, or why they had reacted- -but she knew that she would need to write an extremely long and well-formatted report to her company.

Chapter 15: The Gardens of Draconia

View Online

The Grand Magus paced slowly through the garden. As he did, he imagined that the light above him truly came from the sun, and that the plants below really were outdoors. In actuality, of course, the sun had been gone for over two centuries; the light that illuminated the gardens came from enchanted gemstones designed to simulate sunlight.

The effect, of course, was that the plants always looked a bit artificial. Every leaf and stem cast numerous shadows from the hundreds of gems above, and the density and variety of the plantings hinted of artificial placement. That alone, of course, was not truly a problem- -the plants had been placed artificially, in accordance with unbelievably ancient traditional ways that were regal, elegant, and at the same time pragmatic and bold. It was the way the garden was meant to be- -but in many ways, the Grand Magus longed for the beauty of real nature: not the leafless trees and strange fungus of the new world, but the leaves and flowers of the old one. With the death of Celestia, however, so many of those plants had been rendered extinct. This cave garden contained many plants that were the last of their kind.

As he walked, deep in thought, he would occasionally bend down to pick a flower or two. Most of them were aberrant growths, breaking the detailed pattern of the garden, but sometimes he would pick a more central flower if he believed it to be adequate.

In front of him, a group of smaller dragons suddenly appeared. They were laughing, chasing each other down the path, one very nearly tripping over his improperly sized robe. They seemed so small, in part because they were; they had not even developed their wings yet.

Several of them seemed to notice the Grand Magus, and stopped immediately. One, however, was looking at his friends behind, not looking where he was going. In his distracted state, he ran directly into the Grand Magus’s knees, and was knocked over by the impact.

Without a word, the Grand Magus caught him and righted him. The young dragon looked up, intending to apologize, but when he saw who he had run into, his jaw dropped. He and the other tiny dragons looked up to their leader in awe, as if they had never seen him before.

Two taller figures appeared behind the children. One was a female dragon, her color scheme mauve, who was walking with her hood down. The other was not a dragon at all, but rather a large and hairy bat-winged creature with a horse-like face who wore a belt, vest, and kilt instead of Draconian robes.

“Grand Magus,” said the female dragon, somewhat surprised, and performed a small curtsy. The Grand Magus noticed that she also blushed slightly.

“There is no need for that,” said the Grand Magus, concealing the flowers he was holding in his sleeve- -but not before the gargoyle noticed them. “Come now, you are embarrassing me.”

“As modest as ever, I see,” said Scorpan. He smiled and put his hand on the female dragon’s shoulder. “Incindiary, could you please take the children for me?”

“Of course,” she said. “If you promise to take my next supply run.”

Scorpan laughed. “Yes, yes. Indeed I shall. It has been too long since I gave these wings a good stretch.”

“Deal,” said Incindiary. She turned her attention to the children- -who were still somewhat awestruck. “Come on, children. The Grand Magus has important business to attend to, and we need to get you to afternoon lessons.”

The young dragons groaned, but allowed Incindiary to lead them away.

“Perhaps I will be able to give a lesson later,” said the Grand Magus, before Incindiary was out of earshot. “Sometime this week, maybe?”

Incindiary seemed taken aback. “A lesson from- -from you?”

“Of course,” said the Grand Magus, harkening back to his days as a recurring guest instructor at Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns. “I think the children would enjoy it.”

“Oh,” said Incindiary, inexplicably blushing. “The children- -yes. I do believe they would.”

The young dragons- -now smiling very broadly, nodded vigorously.

The Grand Magus smiled, and he waved as they left.

“You realize that she is madly in love with you, don’t you?” said Scorpan, smiling almost as broadly as the children had been- -but for very different reasons.

“Shut up,” said the Grand Magus, pulling back his hood. He sighed. “I know. But I’m two centuries older than her at least.”

“That, it does not matter so much.”

“I know, I know,” said the Grand Magus, looking up at the cavern ceiling and taking a breath of the garden air. It smelled like life itself. “I just don’t think I am ready yet.”

“Then take your time,” said Scorpan, shrugging. “But not too much time.”

The Grand Magus looked back down at his friend. He knew better than to distrust Scorpan’s advice. In the countless decades since they had first met in what had then been unexplored land on Equestria’s border, the two had become close friends- -and the Grand Magus knew better than to doubt the gargoyle’s advice.

The two began to walk together, falling in step as closely as possible. Scorpan was shorter, with relatively small legs, but he somehow moved faster than the Grand Magus, and with an air of confidence that could only come from millennia of life.

“You spoke to her,” he said, suddenly becoming more serious.

“I did.”

“And it, I can tell, did not go well.”

“No. She refused to support us.”

“To be expected. Thebe is…”

“Arrogant? Self-centered? Misanthropic?”

“Misequithropic,” corrected Scorpan. “And…although you may hate me for this…not entirely wrong.”

“Scorpan. You are like a brother to me. I could never hate you- -even if you are an idiot.”

“I have had poor luck with brothers,” he said, smiling hollowly. “But hear me out. The rule of Thebe is not unlike the rule of Celestia in what you call the Second Era. Her motives may be selfish, but the ends of her style are good. Ponies have freedom to life their lives.”

“Not if that thing destroys them all.”

“I am sure she will engage when she sees fit.”

“If she sees fit. I worry about her, and what she might be capable of. I know her far better than you- -and I know that she would have no qualms about letting Equestria fall.”

“Is that what you truly believe?”

“Yes.”

“Hmm.” He paused. “Well, you are young yet.” He reached into a tree and pulled down a large fruit. He offered it to his friend, who refused. As Scorpan peeled the fruit, he continued. “Thebe is not the only ruler, though. Have you considered contacting Vale?”

“Vale made her opinion clear to me long ago. She is not a soldier, not for this kind of enemy and not for this kind of war. She will not join us, and Discord will not fight alongside us without his wife’s approval.”

“I maintain faith that both Vale and Thebe will act on this in their own ways,” said Scorpan, taking a bite from the fruit. He grimaced. “Not ripe,” he said.

“It was clearly green,” said the Grand Magus, confused. “Surely you could see that.”

“And surely you could see that your situation is equally unripe.”

“The Changeling Empire was decimated.”

“Yes. This is true. But by what? Ponies…they do not act as dragons do. Dragons live in the material world- -and Draconians dwell in the abstract. Ponies lie between. They will not engage unless a recourse is available.”

“All I asked was for their support.”

“Against what? This phantom you have seen through the eye of a madpony?”

“It is real,” protested the Grand Magus.

“Yes, it is,” replied Scorpan before the conversation could devolve into an argument. “But what is it? What is known? How can it be fought? Ponies will not engage an unknown- -because an unknown is impossible to defeat. Once they know, they will plan, and they will act. Evil must have a face- -whether it be my brother’s or Nil’s.”

The Grand Magus knew that Scorpan was right. Perhaps he had acted too soon. Thebe was not entirely disinterested- -she had assisted in the Invasion- -and Vale would gladly fight a war to protect her own people. The more he thought about it, the more unfair it seemed that he had asked them to fight an unseen and unknown enemy- -even though he still knew that fighting it was absolutely critical to the safety of Equestria.

He sighed. “Scorpan…sometimes I hate this eye.”

“Why? You are Grand Magus. It is your duty, and your honor to bear that.”

“I know…but I do not know how Crimsonflame could withstand what it sees. It seems fixated on pain and death. I see so much of it.”

“This world, at present, has no dearth of such things.”

“I saw that monster- -and I see other things. Sickness. Pollution. War. Why?”

“Because that is not all it sees. You know that. That eye saw me. In my time of need, it brought you to me. When I most needed a friend, it gave me you. And it shows you the others, the dragons born into a world different from their kin. Incindiary, the children, and all the others- -all of them your friends and allies.”

“That’s true.” The Grand Magus sighed. “I suppose it is my burden to bear. If the horrors of this world are the cost, I will bear them for you all.”

“Do not be dramatic. It does not suit you.”

The Grand Magus smiled. “I know.” He paused. “But I believe the eye may be changing.”

“Changing? How so?”

“According to Crimsonflame, the eye had always seen what has been happening in the world- -the present. But for me, I think it’s seeing the past.”

“The past?”

“Yes,” said the Grand Magus. “I keep seeing- -of all ponies- -Rainbow Dash.”

“Hmm,” said Scorpan, stroking his beard with his long-clawed fingers. “She was one of the Six, if I recall.”

“She was a good friend.”

“But she could not possibly be alive now, could she?”

“No. She died in an accident centuries ago.”

“Peculiar indeed, then. Unless she yet lives.”

“Scorpan. I saw her die. And believe me, I know death.”

“Indeed you do.” Scorpan pointed to the flowers hidden in the Grand Magus’s sleeve. “Are those for her?”

The Grand Magus was silent for a moment- -but it was clear that Scorpan already knew. “Yes,” he said.

Scorpan said nothing. He only nodded. She had been dead nearly four hundred years, and yet the Grand Magus still loved her as much as he had when he had first met her. Of the Draconians, only Scorpan knew this- -and he never criticized the Grand Magus for it, never pressured him to move on.

Perhaps, though, the Grand Magus knew, it was about time. Memories of the past were meant to be treasured, but not to hold one back.

“I must bid you farewell,” said Scorpan, passing down a slowly curving path that forked from the main one. “We are having a hoofball match later. Ironic, as none of us have hoofs!”

“I did not know you played hoofball.”

“Oh, I am far too old to play such a game with young dragons, but I have a bet with Wuvern. The loser must make the entire winning team a gem cake.”

“Then he had better hope your team wins,” said the Grand Magus. “I’ve had your cooking. It is terrible.”

“I know,” said Scorpan, smiling. “Until next time, Grand Magus Spike!”

He waved as he left, trotting down the cobblestone path. The Grand Magus waved as well, and continued on his own path.

The garden was constructed with several monuments within it. The two primary ones that most Draconians witnessed were the abstract markers to the two previous Grand Magi, both now deceased: Crimsonflame, the only one of the true, ancient Draconians to survive the First Choggoth Ware over one million years earlier, and her father, Rageclaw, the most powerful dragon ever to live. There was also a much larger marker in the center of the gardens, meant to commemorate the countless thousands who had given their lives to protect Panbios in ancient times.

The monument that the Grand Magus approached, however, was set far away from the other two. It was much smaller, and virtually unknown to the other thirty two modern Draconians that dwelt together in Vulcan Colony. It was far off the path, buried deep in the foliage in a tiny clearing surrounded by willows and flowering vines and a special group of delicate ferns tended by the Grand Magus himself.

The others might, perhaps, have seen it, but likely regarded it as a curiosity. Few among them understood the ancient parameters of Draconian art, so none could fully translate that the small marker depicted not the shape of a dragon, but that of a pony- -and few could tell that it was not truly a monument, either, but that it was in truth a grave.

The Grand Magus slowly approached, and, as always, was overwhelmed by his memories of her- -the pony he had loved. He remembered the joy of their time together- -and the sadness that he, as an immortal, was forced to shoulder at her loss- -and still he smiled, for even one memory of her held ten thousand times more happiness than the sadness her death had brought to him.

He knelt, and gave the flowers to her, just as he had so many times in life. He said nothing, as the dead could not hear- -but only paused, and remembered. Then he stood, and, in his mind, vowed once again to protect the world that they had both held so dear- -for she had once again reminded him that he could never be like Thebe, living eternally for himself. To be selfish with his power would be an affront to the pony he had loved, and still loved, even in death- -so he once again promised himself that he would bear the spirit that she no longer could, and to carry generosity in all his actions until the day when his marker was constructed in the garden and he could join his beloved Rarity.

Chapter 16: Balance of Nature

View Online

In the depths of the southern swamps, in areas where no living pony had tread since long before the time of Celestia, a young deer breathed heavily. This deer- -his name Havier, after an unfortunate accident cost him half of his staghood- -stood on the edge of the darkest depths of the forest, the area where the murk of the swamps shifted into a mossy hill overgrown by profound and ancient trees- -trees that to his eyes were more terrifying than majestic, with their gnarled trunks covered in moss and lichen that looked far too alive.

His opinions, he knew, might well have been greatly affected by what he knew dwelt within. He could almost feel the ancient evil and power emanating from that dark and foreboding place, and all his deer instincts told him to raise his tail and run away- -but unlike so many of his kind, he was a soldier, a member of a long line of proud defenders of the forests- -and loyal to the end to the Queen that dwelt before him.

Havier adjusted his ironwood armor, making himself look as presentable as possible, and slowly stepped forward toward the dark opening to the grove. As he did, he felt them watching- -the eyes of the forest, the mindless creatures of impossible ancientness- -and he moved even faster.

Inside, it was impossible to know the true nature of the structure he had entered. Inside the trees and beneith the ancient, mossy stones, the ground sloped and fell at random, and with the canopy overhead it was impossible to tell if he was moving into a cave, or up a hill. There was no true way to know if he was indoors in some way, or still outside. One thing was clear, though- -he was in the depths of nature that terrified even him.

Creatures surrounded him, but they were not like the creatures that dwelt outside. The animals he was familiar with were soft and relatable, like rabbits and fieldpiece and birds- -but these things were strange and alien; things with aggressive fangs or numerous clicking legs, or eyes that, like his own, reflected in the darkness.

Many of them, he knew, were profoundly dangerous- -small things that traveled in great numbers, tamed ages ago by the breezies to serve as their defenders and now leant to the Queen. Just a single bite from a crystal-star spider contained enough poison to kill one hundred deer.

In time, he found his way through the winding paths to a great opening shrouded with vines. Guarding it were to massive does. Each of them had luminescent green eyes and skin that was hardened in parts into tough shells- -indicating that they were both werewoods.

Havier gulped- -even though he knew them to be the most devoted of the Queen’s guards, the smell of timber seemed to emanate from them. He knew that they would not hesitate to tear him apart if he made even a single improper move.

“I am Six-Point Commander Havier of the Clear-Creek tribe,” he stated, clearly, and without emotion.

“Yes,” growled one of the wearwood deer. “Queen Vale is expecting you.”

They stepped aside, and the vines to the throne room retracted, and Havier was allowed to enter.

His eyes took a moment to adjust to the light of the room. He had become accustomed to the darkness of the twisted corridors, but this room was well lit by bioluminescent fungi that crawled across the walls, pouring out a strange blue light that seemed to carry as tiny, fluttering particles.

In the center of the room stood a throne made of wood and the bones of countless ponies. In it sat a pony, her coat a sickly, corpse-like yellow. Her glaring eyes were red, without pupils or retinas, and her wings were far larger than any true Pegasus, to the point where they were held behind the back of her throne, their tips lying against the ground. Each one was larger than the rest of her, and they framed her with yellow feathers.

Two figures remain waited on either side of her. On her right stood a bipedal creature in tattered yellow robes, its face covered with a strange mask and a heavy iron collar with a broken chain around its neck. Though its mask had no holes for eyes, Havier immediately knew that it was watching him, and everything, waiting- -and he understood that behind that mask was something far too horrible to comprehend.

On the bored-looking pony’s left, in his own throne, was a draconequss, his snake-like body lounging inverted in his chair. He was repeatedly snapping his claw, and with each snap the chair would change into a new form- -a great wooden chair, then one made of stone, then a beanbag, a commode, and one made seemingly out of iron swords. That creature- -Discord- -was equally as dangerous as his rival and nemesis on the yellow pony’s left, and Havier suddenly felt terribly nervous.

The yellow pony looked down- -or at least Havier reasoned that she did; with pupil less eyes, it was impossible to tell exactly where she was looking.

“Oh deer,” said Discord, slithering off a gaudy plastic lawn chair and wrapping his lion-arm around Havier. “Well, it seems we have a visitor. A venison visiter. Verily, a very venison visitor visiting voracious Vale. And look at that rack! Are you trying to make me jealous?” Discord ran his hand through his own horns, which had suddenly become much larger, as if he were trying to compensate.

“Discord,” said Vale, putting her elbow on her arm rest and her head on her hoof. “At least let him do that adorable deer salute.”

“My Queen,” said Havier, performing the salute in question. “Six-Point Commander Havier of the Clear-Creek tribe.”

“Six-Point? What happened to Twelve-Point Commander Stone Hart?”

“Slain, at the hoofs of a pony assassin. I am now war-chief of the Clear-Creek tribe.”

“I am sad to hear that,” said Vale. She did not look sad, of course- -she had faced so much death in her eternal life that it hardly bothered her anymore.

“You made her sad,” whispered Discord, pulling Havier closer and smiling- -revealing that his teeth were far sharper than Havier would have expected. “You know the rule. If I see one tear…”

“Discord,” said Vale. “Let the poor deer speak. Or, rather, let him answer what I ask.” She stood, her great wings lifting behind her and trailing behind her as she stepped down toward Havier, who stiffened at attention on her approach. The way she moved was terrifying, as if she were not whole. Ponies, perhaps, would have thought her beautiful- -but to a deer, she was a ghastly perversion of a living being, a true and terrible monster.

“Yes, your…your majesty?”

“Tell me,” she said, smiling, revealing several sharp fangs. “And please, feel free to be honest with me. What was Stone Hart doing anywhere near ponies?”

“We are your military,” said Havier. “We moved to defend the forces of Nature from- -”

“NO,” said Vale. Havier instantly felt the stare of her horrible, reflective red eyes staring into his very soul, crushing him from within. “You are not my military. The cervine division is meant to be scouts, not soldiers. You never fight. I assumed that was clear.”

“But- -my Queen- -”

“Ah ah ah,” said Discord, waving an eagle-claw finger. “We don’t disagree with her. Not ever. Unless you want to be part of the chair.” He snapped his fingers, and a convincing deer-skull appeared as a cup holder on Vale’s chair.

“I would never do that,” said Vale, smiling in a way that made Havier wonder if she were lying. “But he is right. The war is fought by the Forest. When I need soldiers, I have the gohh sentinels. None of my friends should need to die for this fight- -not a single deer.”

“But we must protect ourselves from the encroaching pony fascists. Our water, our village- -destroyed by miners and loggers- -”

“He just did it,” sighed Discord. He raised a hand in front of Havier’s face, making sure that the deer was able to see the contents- -a single walnut. “I suppose he will need to be…corrected.” He crushed the single walnut in his claw, and Havier felt his rear legs instinctively clench together.

“No, no,” said Vale. “If he wants to give his life to a pointless cause, then I will allow him, as much as it breaks my heart.”

“Pointless?” cried Havier, his rage suddenly overcoming his fear. “How dare you call the plight of my people pointless? We are dying, our land, our people- -they are being destroyed while you sit here and watch.”

“Well, I’ve had enough of this,” said Discord, producing a lobster-shell cracking tool. “Hmm. Not really my thing…maybe I should ring Gell…”

“Let him speak,” said Vale firmly.

“Ponies never stop,” continued Havier. “They keep coming, bringing nothing but death and poison! Our Forest falls to their onslaught as they take more and more, taking the trees and replacing them with steel and waste! And what have you done? Do you even care, pony?”

The smile vanished from Vale’s face, and Havier immediately knew that he had gone too far- -but he would not retract what he had said.

“I am not a pony,” said Vale. “I never have been. I never shall be. And what do I do?” She leaned closer. “The land your ‘tribe’ lived on was claimed by me seventy years ago, and it will return to me- -if you had only waited instead of trying to fight.”

“I will not sit by and allow my deer to die. This is why- -this is why I have come to declare that the western deer nation is seceding from your control.”

“So, what? You intend to fight ponies? With wood and spears? Against machineguns, lasers, magic, equidroids, Thebe- -do you even know what the world of ponies looks like, how much more powerful it is compared to you?”

Havier realized that he did not. He had only ever seen the invaders, and the machines they brought with them- -but he knew nothing of the world that they came from, the world that could spawn such abominations. He recalled the death of Stone Hart- -a powerful stag, the war-chief of the tribe, who had charged into the fray, his horns lowered for defense- -only to be torn asunder effortlessly by the glowing horn of a pony.

“I am your protector,” said Vale. “Because I am powerful- -because together, we are. You do not need to put yourself in danger, Havier.”

“I am afraid I cannot do that. Please. You must understand- -by our honor, we cannot allow you to fight the battles that are ours.”

“Let him leave,” said a voice. Havier jumped, and the instinct to run almost overcame him. His eyes darted around the room, trying to find the source of the voice. Then he saw a pony appear from the shadows. For a moment, his fear-filled mind believed that they had been infiltrated, or that perhaps Vale truly was conspiring with the enemy, and that she would not allow him to leave alive. Then he realized that the pony was unusually gaunt, and its coat dirty and greenish. From its back, it was sprouting moss and strange, gnarled twigs tipped with tiny, featherlike feelers that waved continually without a breeze.

Havier was shocked by the sudden appearance of a gohh- -or, as he understood it, a being infected by the gohh. Nodeer knew what the gohh actually looked like, aside from many-eyed shambling masses of moss and fungoid growth that shunned the light- -but he knew that they were more ancient than ancient, having existed for longer than even they could remember, and he knew what they were capable of.

“His nation is small; weak,” said the gohh. “Far smaller than their pride…they will die, or they will return, or we shall win.”

“But at what cost?” said Vale- - not to the gohh, which had no real mind, but to Havier. Then she turned her attention to the gohh. “And why have you come here?”

“The children,” it said. “The children have witnessed.”

“What have they seen?”

“Aberration.” The voice echoed throughout the room, coming from unseen things in the edges of the darkness- -and Havier realized that there were so many of them; or it was more than that. The palace did not just contain them, but, in some part, it was them.

“Wow,” said Discord. “That is terribly creepy.”

“Something met,” said the gohh, “not of this era. Out of time…wrong. Time traveler.”

“Time traveler,” repeated the voices, and Havier nearly fainted as he saw the skeletal faces of the blind, long-dead infected turn toward him from their mossy prisons.

“He didn’t happen to be green, did he?” said Discord. “Because, between you…you all…yins…y’all…I know that guy.”

“No. Blue. Like the Maker or Ruins. Traveled with Order.”

Havier did not understand what the gohh was saying- -and doubted that it understood either.

Vale sighed. “And just when I thought I would finally have a quiet day.” She turned around, momentarily fluttering her wings, and nearly revealing her cutie mark. Havier looked away- -he knew the stories concerning those unfortunate enough to be stared at by that particular pair of eyes. Vale returned to her throne, and Discord took his place on the rocking chair beside her.

“Tell your nation, Havier, that I reject their succession. Perhaps if Stone Heart still lived…but I do not trust you.” She nodded to the gohh-pony.

“Sentinels have been sent,” it said. “The children will protect.”

Havier was horrified. In his mind, it had all gone so smoothly- -he would tell Vale of his nation’s succession, and she would acquiesce, perhaps saying something about a heavy heart- -but instead she was sending troops to occupy them, to pull the deer back into her eternal empire.

“You can leave if you want,” said Vale. “But to all those who cannot chose…they shall be defended.”

The gohh stared blankly, and then returned to its shadows- -to where something unseen was waiting for it.

“In case you didn’t realize it,” said Discord, whispering, “I think you got her really rustled. It might be wise to leave.”

“N- -no,” stuttered Havier. “Not until- -”

He was once again met with Vale’s piercing stare, and found himself bowing- -and leaving.

As Havier left, he felt himself shaking- -both from fear, and from rage. As he moved deeper into the empty darkness of the palace, however, he found himself wondering why. He was distantly afraid- -because he could not remember why he had come to this place.

Then, in a moment, his mind vanished- -and the other mind within him rose to the surface. His eyes glazed over as the Incurse within him deactivated his mind, asserting itself as the dominant personality. It shifted its internal systems, identifying an appropriate encryption code, and condensed the information it had observed- -and then transmitted across space to its benefactor: to Thebe.

Havier blinked, wondering why he had suddenly stopped walking. He shrugged off the slight disruption in his walk- -and realized just how glad he was to have survived his encounter with one of the most feared- -and most loved- -ponies in all of Equestria.

Vale sighed as she leaned back into her throne against her long, luxurious wings. “That there even has to be a war…” she said. “So tiresome…and so painful. My heart weeps for them.”

“The deer, dear?” said Discord.

“For all those who trust me as their caretaker. Such a burden…and now the gohh seem to be nervous too.” She sighed. “It just keeps getting worse. Will this ever stop?”

“Of course it will,” said Discord, wrapping his wife in a hug. “At the very least, when Thebe nukes us all.”

“Oh, Discord,” said Vale, taking him in her arms. “Let her try.”

“She never would. But wrapping his wife in a hug. “At the very least, when Thebe nukes us all.”

“Oh, Discord,” said Vale, taking him in her arms. “Let her try.”

“She never would. But you know what I know- -that we’re on the winning side of this. I don’t pick losers.”

Vale smiled and hugged Discord tightly. They embraced for a moment- -and then Vale opened her thighs. Gently, but with more than adequate firmness, she moved Discord’s head lower on her body, until it was between her legs. She moaned as she pushed his mouth onto her.

“Oh, Discord,” she groaned. “Tell me I’m soft.”

“You are,” said Discord, momentarily extricating himself. “You are the softest pony of them all- -and you taste like strawberry cheesecake. Which, actually, you might want to see a doctor about. But…are you sure we should do this here? With that thing watching?”

“Him?” said Vale, looking up to the Yellow King. “He doesn’t even have real eyes…and, to be honest, it turns me on if somepony watches us.”

“Oh,” said Discord, raising an eyebrow. “You certainly aren’t shy, are you?”

“Shut up,” said Vale as she pushed Discord back into position. As Discord began his husbandly duties, Vale spread her great wings, and covered them both with her downy feathers.

As the demon queen of the swamps squeaked with pleasure, she planned her course of action. She would need to find this time traveler herself, to confirm what the gohh were so frightened of- -and if it was something that Thebe had acquired, some kind of new soldier her cursed magic had forged, Vale would kill it personally- -if she could just find it.

There was no way that she could be aware that, thousands of miles away, a metal-coated biped with a pair of glowing white eyes had just entered the farthest perimeters of her Forest.

Chapter 17: Appleoosa

View Online

Five descended from the sky once more, feeling her hoofs and robotic claws digging into the dusty sand below. She felt the cold wind of the desert plane whipping around her, and she retraced her wings against the cold.

As Rainbow Dash landed beside her, Five let out a warbling whistle. The red-orange light circling above her responded, and Philomena changed course, flying toward the dusty, silent town ahead.

“Why’d we stop flying?” said Rainbow Dash.

“Because here, it is best to approach on foot,” said Five.

Rainbow Dash looked around at the desert surrouonding her, and Five could tell that she must have distantly remembered it. The land was largely the same- -except that, in the centuries of semi-darkness, the formerly relatively sterile sands an gravel had become overgrown with small, evenly spaced mushrooms.

“Um, where are we, anyway?”

Five pointed toward the dilapidated wooden buildings in the distance. “That is Appleoosa.”

“Appleloosa?” said Rainbow Dash, confused. “Hey, I know that place!” She paused. “Why didn’t we take the train?”

“Because there is none.” Five sighed. “At least we got some distance on the back of Mountain’s hovervessel. Until somepony vomited on me.”

“It kept turning,” said Rainbow Dash, defensively. “I can handle a train, but not boats.”

“It is not a boat.”

“Close enough. Besides, I need to keep in practice to keep these amazing wings in shape.” She extended her wings near her head and kissed each of them, and then flexed them. “But it’s been forever since I’ve been to Appeloosa. And not just because of the whole time-jump thingy. Do they still make that ‘special’ cider?”

“No,” said Five. “Apples have not grown here in centuries.”

“No…no apples?”

“They generally grow poorly with little light.”

“Oh…that’s kind of sad.” She looked around. “At least they have a lot of…mushrooms?”

“That’s all that now grows here.” Five picked one and took a bite of it. It was mildly bitter, but she was able to keep it down.

“That’s…neat,” said Rainbow Dash. She reached down to pick one of the caps with her mouth.

“What are you doing?” said Five, causing Rainbow Dash to stop just before her mouth clamped around the stalk of the fungal growth.

“I was going to…to eat it.”

“Don’t do that. You will die.”

“But you’re- -”

“A chiropteran. If you try to eat one with improper cooking, you will expire of liver failure within hours.”

“I hate mushrooms anyway,” said Rainbow Dash, backing away from the fungus as though it were going to attack her.

“And yet you were going to eat it…”

“I’m hungry,” whined Rainbow Dash. “My glorious feats of athleticism kind of take a lot of calories.”

Five only glanced at Rainbow Dash, and then finished her mushroom. In the past few days, she had found that she rather did not like the blue Pegasus. That was largely an extension of the fact that she did not especially like any pony. Rainbow Dash was especially bad, though. All the qualities that made her a historically compelling figure were terribly grating in real life. She was brash, loud, boastful, and terribly naïve despite her feigned bravado. She was, however, at least loyal- -a trait that Five knew only existed for the powerful to control the simple-minded. Which, in her case, was the exact situation she had found herself in.

“Now, listen,” said Five. “We need to stop for supplies- -but this town is not what it used to be.”

“It looks the same,” Said Rainbow Dash, eying the mushrooms around her perhaps a bit too eagerly. “Except…dirtier. And all sorts of broken.”

“It’s a ghost town,” said Five. “Or, mostly. When the apple crops failed, so did the town.”

“Well, at least the bison- -”

“Were exterminated with biological weapons. They were not missed.”

“I don’t know what that means,” said Rainbow Dash- -even though it was clear by the expression on her face that she at least distantly knew what Five meant. Five did not bother to mention that the virus that destroyed the bison had actually been meant for the chiropterans.

“The points is, this is a mushroom town. And mushroom folk are strange.”

“Are they, like…covered in mushrooms or something?”

“No. They are mostly hermits or criminals. Ponies that couldn’t deal with life in the cities but weren’t approved to live in the frontier zone. Rejects- -but ponies striving to live.”

“So?”

“So watch your plot, because somepony just might try to steal it.”

They approached the edge of the town. Superficially, it looked empty and nearly abandoned. The buildings there had been constructed out of wood- -where from, Anhelios had no idea, considering it was in the center of a desert- -and the dryness of the desert had originally preserved them for decades, allowing them to dry and become cracked under the sun. In more recent times, however, the climate shift had caused moisture and invasion of fungus. Chemical treatments had kept the mushrooms at bay, for the most part, but the town had been in disrepair for so long that many of its structures were not unrecognizable as buildings.

It was not empty, though. There were ponies. They stayed in the darkness beneath the haphazardly sloping and crooked awnings of their homes and businesses, watching. Many of them were old stallions, grizzled by years of warfare or prison life, but others were younger. There were a number of who were far younger, the children of the settlers. Many of them seemed far less distrustful than their elders- -but still kept their distance.

The mood was tense- -but not expressly dangerous. Ponies did not come to Appleoosa for danger, adventure, or to build on their lives of crime- -they came to form a new life in the only place they could. They were naturally coarse, but not expressly violent; or at least, that was what Five hoped. She had not been to Appleoosa in decades; there really was no need to.

A distant birdcry cut through the air, and Five watched as Philomena descended, landing on Five’s back. Five reached into the bird’s mind and determined what Philomena had seen in her initial sweep. She sighed, realizing how terrible her timing was and took the bird in her claw. She issued several telepathic directions, and Philomena nodded. The phonenix then took flight and soared across the town, finally taking a perch on the crooked steeple of the long-abandoned, decaying church of Celestia.

“Right,” she said, mostly to herself. “Say, Rainbow Dash, how about a break?”

“Break? I’m not tired.”

“Come on. Let me buy you a drink.”

Five forcibly pushed Rainbow Dash into the local saloon. The various alcoholics in the establishment looked up, and Five could sense that her and Rainbow Dash were not welcome.

That did not really concern her- -she could sense most of their intentions, and few were angry enough to pull a weapon. So Five and Rainbow Dash walked slowly to the back of the dimly lit saloon.

“So,” said the bartender as they approached the pitted and stinking bar. “A bat and a Blue. We don’t get many of your kind here…and I’m sure you can tell you’re not wanted here.” He eyed Rainbow Dash and Five. “You two some kind of filly-foolers?”

“And if we were? Would that matter?”

“It’s an unnatural perversion…but no. As long as you can pay…and I know you’re kind can’t. This ain’t a charity.”

Five slammed her head sideways against the bar, and with a powerful gagging sound that made the bartender recoil, she choked out two small blue crystals that had formerly been mushroom. She pushed the mucous and blood covered pair of stones across the bar, and then lifted her mouth and wiped her lips.

“Sapphires. I think. Give me seltzer water. Give her whatever kind of alcohol you have.”

The bartender stared at her for a moment, and then looked down at the gems.

“You’ve got a deep throat, ain’t ya?” he said, absentmindedly as he swept the gems into the glass he had been polishing.

“And several sharp fangs.”

“Point taken…ha ha.” He waved them away. “Pick a table. My daughter will come with the drinks.”

“I don’t think so,” said Rainbow Dash, leaning forward. Five put her metallic palm to her face; things had been going so well. “First off, I am not a lespony. Second, where do you get off saying things like that? Is there something wrong with mares loving mares? Don’t get me wrong, I definitely like stallions- -but I have friends who are lesponies! I’m not just going to stand here and let you call them dirty names like that!”

“Oh yeah?” said the bartender, leaning over the bar and raising one eyebrow. “Just what are you going to do about it, little filly?”

“I’m going to take this here robotic hoof,” said Rainbow Dash, raising her left foreleg. “And I am going to shove it so far up your- -”

Five grabbed Rainbow Dash by the shoulder and turned her so that they were facing each other. She could feel the tension in the room rising, and knew that Rainbow Dash would not stop until she got into a fight- -she was just that kind of pony. Time was running short, though, and Five needed to defuse the situation. Normally she would have done it with violence, but her other half had created a better- -and far more unsavory- -solution.

Several of Five’s claws extended as she put her hoof behind Rainbow Dash’s head. Then, with Rainbow Dash’s head locked in place, she pulled Rainbow Dash forward and planted their lips together.

Rainbow Dash was immediately confused, and the flustered. She tried to resist, and Five realized that she was surprisingly strong. Five barely had a chance to insert her tongue as Rainbow Dash pulled away, gasping and blushing heavily.

The bartender, as well as most of the patrons, stared at the two wide-eyed. A green pony in the background cheered, and somepony started clapping.

Five pointed at the most distant of the tables. “Sit,” she said.

Rainbow Dash, now so embarrassed and confused that she had lost the will to fight, did as she was told. She walked to the table over the sinking floor and sat down. Five joined her, sitting across from her so that she could see the door and windows on her right.

“Why did you…why did you do that?” whispered Rainbow Dash, trying to fold her oddly erect wings behind her into the splintery, foul-smelling seat.

“Because fighting is not warranted,” said Five.

“But- -you could have at least asked!”

“You should be honored,” said Five, rubbing her tongue, trying to get the horrible taste of pony spit out of her mouth. “That was my first kiss.”

“Well it was completely embarrassing- -I mean, what if they…wait, what?”

Before Five was forced to once again explain the nature of a parthogen, a pony appeared beside them with a pair of drinks on a plate. She was a relatively young mare with a light red complexion, dressed in traditional Appleloosa barmaid attire.

“That was really something,” she said, placing a dirty class of bubbling brown fluid in front of Rainbow Dash and an equally dirty glass of slightly less brown fluid in front of Five. “I’ve never seen my pa’s jaw drop so low…and Old Coot hasn’t smiled that wide in since they started making colanders in his hat size.”

“Glad I could help,” said Five, taking a sip of the fluid that was supposed to be fizzy water. It tasted more like fizzy rust. She grimaced, and set it down.

“How did you do that trick with the sapphires, though?” she asked.

Five turned to her. “What are you named, pony?” she asked.

“Promising,” she said. “My name is Promising Future.”

“How optimistic,” said Five, looking back at Rainbow Dash, who was now examining the drink she had been given quite intently. “I do that ‘trick’ by increasing the Order of elements of food I have eaten, at which point gemstones are expelled. Painfully.”

Five watched as Rainbow Dash took a sip of her fermented mushroom juice- -and nearly vomited, at which point she promptly began to chug it. Five made an internal note to watch Rainbow Dash for tendencies toward alcoholism and addictive behavior.

“Is there any way you could teach me to do that?”

Five turned to Promising Future. “No,” she said flatly.

“Oh,” said Promising, looking dismayed.

“Why do you conceal your wings?” asked Five.

Promising Future visibly jumped, and Rainbow Dash suddenly seemed interested.

“Oh yeah- -hic- -” said Rainbow Dash. “I couldn’t even tell she was a Pegasus.”

“How did you know?” said Promising Future.

“I read your mind,” said Five. “Clearly.”

“Wings are something you should be proud of,” said Rainbow Dash, extending hers and flapping with enough force to pull her chair- -and part of the table- -upward, forcing Five to scramble to keep their drinks from spilling.

“Because when you work in a place like this,” said Promising Future. “Ponies tend to try to grab them.”

“I don’t actually care,” said Five.

“Well then punch ‘em,” said Rainbow Dash, slamming her robotic hoof into her organic one- -and wincing with pain.

“Promising Future!” called the bartender. “Stop talking to the filly-foolers and get back to work!”

“Right, pa,” she called back. She turned back to Five as she walked away. “Hey…maybe I can talk to you later?”

“Doubtful,” said Five.

Promising Future’s expression fell as she put the dented metal drink tray on her back and returned to her father.

“You know,” said Rainbow Dash, now slightly buzzed from the fungal alcohol that she was somehow curiously able to stomach. “You are a huge jerk.”

“I know,” said Five. “But she was only bothering to talk to me in an attempt to garner funds.”

“And the way you talk…where the hay did you learn that? Gell doesn’t talk like that…”

“I speak as I choose.” Five put her head on the table.

“Is something…something wrong?” asked Rainbow Dash, now almost genuinely concerned.

“Of all the times for this to happen…”

“What? Are you…” she leaned closer and whispered, using her hoof to shield her mouth from the other ponies. “Are you having estrus problems?”

Five looked up. “Parthogen. No estrus. Actually, most ponies don’t even do that anymore. They didn’t when you were alive. And no. All I wanted to do was to get some food, and ammo, and perhaps a new power dissipation spike. Then we would fly to the edge train hub. But no…”

There was a sound, distant at first, but growing louder. Rainbow Dash seemed to instinctively ignore it, not realizing that it was the roar of engines, but the other ponies all seemed to react with fear.

“Try to move as little as possible,” sighed Five. “This will be…challenging.”

Rainbow Dash became aware of the ponies in the room suddenly moving. Some left, others simply stiffened. One even tried to hide. Only then did Rainbow Dash realize that there was a sound that was rapidly growing louder. It was a sort of whirring hum, like the sound of the old engines that Applejack had sometimes used for various tasks- -but faster and somehow different, as though every stroke were metallic an echoing.

She leaned back in her chair and looked to her left, out the dirty and cracked windows of the bar. As she did, the first of several vehicles passed by. Rainbow Dash had never seen anything like them- -metal devices with two wheels, powered by internal engines, and ridden by ponies dressed in black faux-leather and spiky, makeshift armor. She did not know how those vehicles worked, but she immediately knew that she wanted one.

After a few minutes, the engines cut, and the sound of motor noise was replaced by unintelligible voices and commotion, and something that was perhaps a scream.

“You two,” hissed the bartender, motioning toward Five and Rainbow Dash, and pointing behind the bar. “Get over- -”

The gate door to the saloon suddenly burst open, and everypony inside stared at the ponies that entered. There were two of them; one of them was a unicorn with deep-set, glaring eyes, dressed in black and steel with his a pair of sidearms holstered against his body. The other was a large, fully armored earth pony that reminded Rainbow Dash of a far rustier version of Celestia’s powered earth pony soldiers- -complete with the excessively large weapon on his back that slowly scanned the room.

“Hello, everypony!” called the unicorn, smiling. “How is everypony doing?”

“Look, we don’t want any trouble,” said the bartender. Rainbow Dash saw that he was shaking as he pulled out a pair of glasses and a bottle of something that was definitely not mushroom beer. “Here, guys. On the house…my best stuff.”

“Oh,” said the unicorn, smiling in a way that make Rainbow Dash’s skin crawl. “Why thank you. At least somepony knows how to show some respect to your owner.” He sauntered across the room and picked up the glass in his magic. He nearly took a sip- -and then his magic burst around it, spraying the bartender with expensive alcohol and shards of glass.

“Do you think I am an idiot?!” the unicorn screamed. “Do you think a free drink is going to make up for what you did?”

Nopony spoke. The bartender was bleeding, but he refused to cry and pretended not to notice. The unicorn turned to his captive audience. He sighed, and feigned sadness. “I’m so, so sorry,” he said. “But you all brought this upon yourself. We were, out of the graciousness of or hearts, going to protect this town…but you didn’t pay us for our hard work and terrible sacrifice.”

“Nopony asked for your help,” said an old mare at one of the tables. “A bunch of…robbers, you are.”

The armored earth pony approached her, but the unicorn raised his hoof.

“No,” he said. “Too old.”

The earth pony produced a garbled sound that might have been words- -or laughter. He then punched the old mare in the face, knocking her backward onto the floor.

“Now,” said the unicorn, “if I recall, you had that ravishing daughter, didn’t you?”

“No,” said the bartender, suddenly panicking but trying to hide it poorly. “She’s- -she’s just an earth pony. She’s not worth anything to you.”

“Earth mares still get some money. Hay, maybe we’ll even get a good buyer- -but you’re a businessman. Surely you understand that I need to turn a profit.”

His horn glowed a sickly blue, and Rainbow Dash heard a surprised squeak from somewhere behind the bar. Promising Future struggled against the magic as it lifted her out from a cabinet. For a moment, she even tried to take hold of the bar, but her hoofs simply slipped across it before her father could grab her.

“No, please!” said the bartender. “Take my bar, my money- -but she’s all I’ve got!”

“She’s worth more than the entire place,” said the unicorn. “And don’t worry about her. She’ll be going somewhere far better than this hole. And…” he put his hoof to his ear, listening to the sounds of ponies crying out in desperation outside. “She’s not going to be alone. All your mares are belong to us now!”

He laughed heartily- -and psychotically- -until his companion gurgled. The unicorn immediately stopped laughing, and looked closely at the pony suspended in his magic.

“No way,” he said. His magic split, and Promising Future cried out as her dress was ripped in half- -reveiling a pair of red wings.

“Barkeep,” said the unicorn, tsk-tsking, “you’ve been holding out on me.”

“No, please!” cried the bartender. Rainbow Dash suddenly noticed that the bartender was pointing at her. “Take them! Those mares! Just leave my Future!”

The unicorn stared at Rainbow Dash, and his eyes narrowed. Rainbow Dash felt her spine tingle- -but she was not afraid. She felt her rage rising- -rage at her circumstance, at having been brought against her will to a future where everything she valued was gone, and rage at this smug-faced unicorn. It all started to focus on that unicorn, and Rainbow Dash felt the energy causing her robotic arm to twitch. She wanted nothing more than to slam her metal hoof into his horn and make him scream for what he was doing.

The unicorn approached, and then paused. Before he was in range, he turned back to the bartender. “Are you thick? These are not mares, friend.”

Rainbow Dash was about to protest, when she heard a strange voice from across the table.

“That is correct,” said Five. Rainbow Dash turned and nearly jumped out of her seat. The eyes staring back at her were not wide and blue; instead, they were overly large and turquoise, with vertical slit pupils. “We are stallions. There are no mares here.”

Rainbow Dash blinked. For some reason, the image of Five was wrong. She knew what Five looked like, but for some reason, her mind refused to completely accept the form before her. Five’s appearance seemed to be shifting and swirling, and somehow Rainbow Dash could not stop herself from partially seeing a sallow, ragged bat stallion sitting across from her.

“A bat and a Blue,” said the unicorn. “What a pair…clearly from out of town. Say, would you gents happen to have seen any mares aside from this little gem?”

“No,” said Five, her voice distorted. For some reason, she sounded both like herself and like a stallion- -and like a voice that Rainbow Dash somehow remembered from what seemed like so long ago. “But, might I ask…of what purpose are these mares to you?”

“Purpose…oh, my.” He bowed, excessively, jerking Promising Future to the side as he did. “I am called Flesh,” he said. “Purveyor of fine horses. As per your question, good sir, I market mares. The wealthy will pay a hefty fee to own a good one…and the less wealthy, well, they pay to rent.”

“I see,” said Five. “I myself am but a lowly bat…but my employer may be interested in these.”

“Then we will be sure to write our number on whatever buildings we don’t arson,” said Flesh, smiling.

“I’ve had enough of this,” said Rainbow Dash, pushing back from the table. Her own voice sounded strange to her- -but she hardly noticed. She turned around, prepared for a fight- -but promptly fell over as the world swirled around her.

Flesh laughed above her, as did his armored companion. “Well,” he said, putting his hoof on Rainbow Dash’s face and pressing it down painfully. “Sompeony can’t hold his liquor!” He turned to the other patrons. “Come on! Laugh at his failure!” He kicked Rainbow Dash firmly in the face. “Look what happens when you try to be a hero!”

“The Blue is right!” cried an old stallion, pushing over a table and drawing a pistol.

Flesh was faster- -he drew one of his sidearms with his magic and fired. A bolt of light ignited on the old stallion’s shoulder, and he cried out as his shoulder singed under the force of the laser. He fell to the floor, writing in pain.

“No laugh at both of them!” said Flesh. “Laugh or die!”

They all laughed, weakly and humorlessly. Even Five laughed- -although Rainbow Dash did not see her face move. She had actually never moved. She simply sat perfectly still, her eyes staring at nothing in particular and everything at once.

“There we go. Now, I would love to stay and beat this Blue hero into a pulp…but I have ‘business’ to attend to with the fresh mares.”

The bartender jumped over the bar, and the others held him back as the armored earth pony’s weapon automatically swiveled toward them. Flesh only laughed- -and walked out the door.

As he did, though, a flash red swooped down on him. He cried out as Philomena tore at his face.

“Bird! Bird! Kill it!” he cried, drawing his weapon and firing. Philomena was agile, though, and retreated rapidly out of his range.

“Five,” said Rainbow Dash as the engines began to hum again. She saw the vehicles pass by- -and saw cages being towed by them, filled with crying mares. “Five, we have to…to do…something…”

She may have passed out for several moments, but was suddenly awakened by a sharp prick and burning sensation in her neck.

“Huh?” she said, suddenly feeling energy rush through her. Rainbow Dash stood up, seeing Five standing next to her, holding a needle. “Where am I, what- -” Then she remembered. “We have to help them!”

Five, she realized, looked terrible. Her eyes- -now back to their normal coloration- -were sunken and glossy, and she swayed as she walked. “Quiet, please,” said Five. “Massive…headache. You have no idea how hard that was.”

Rainbow Dash heard other noises- -and realized that the bartender was still being held back by other ponies.

“They took her!” he cried. “It should have been you! They took my daughter!”

A gun suddenly appeared at Five’s side- -Rainbow Dash supposed she had been holding it the whole time. “I just maintained a psychic image for nearly two minutes,” she said, watching as the pony backed down at the sight of her barrel- -and began crying. “I am not in the mood for this.”

The bartender sobbed quietly. “Why?” he asked. “Why…why her, and not you?”

“Because she was weak, and I am strong. This is the way in which the world operates.” Five turned to Rainbow Dash, and Rainbow Dash perceived that Five was herself on the verge of collapse. “We have to go, now,” she said.

“Yeah,” said Rainbow Dash. “We can still catch them before- -”

“They are of no consequence. This does not concern us.”

“What?!”

“But with us being the only two remaining mares, I doubt that they will trade with us…and with what I did, there is a certain risk of a whole ‘burn the witch’ situation that I would rather avoid. So, we leave.”

Five stepped past Rainbow Dash and made her way to the door.

“No,” said Rainbow Dash, turning toward Five. “What is wrong with you?”

“Several things. None of them are relevant here.”

“You just saw a mare get abducted- -and you don’t feel anything is wrong with that?”

“There is no difference between right and wrong. This is obvious.”

“Five, get over here,” said Rainbow Dash, pointing at the floor. Five turned around and slowly approached.

“What do you- -”

Rainbow Dash channeled her rage directly into Five’s face, slamming her with a steel, gold-clad hoof. There was a crack and a snap, and Five’s head was turned to one side suddenly. Five moved her jaw, and then spit out several teeth. Then she slowly turned back.

“Do not forget who paid for that arm of yours,” said Five. “You have no understanding of this world. What you knew- -it is long gone. This is the world now. Now we are leaving.” She grabbed Rainbow Dash by the joint that connected her robotic arm to her body- -and pulled. It was severely uncomfortable, and Five was able to pull Rainbow Dash through the door before Rainbow Dash managed to pull away.

“I don’t have time for this,” said Five. “We need to leave now- -before they get suspicious.”

“I’m not going.”

“Good,” said Five, examining her gun. “You can stay with Gell in the Pocket for now. Because this shall become…messy.”

“What are you talking about?” said Rainbow Dash, confused.

“I said we are leaving,” said Five, coldly. “You for some reason desire to stay…or so I gather from your inane babbling. That injection, by the way, costs eighty bits. Pay me later.”

“I’m the one babbling?”

“I am leaving…but not without resources.”

“But you said yourself they wouldn’t trade.”

“Not from them,” said Five, staring into Rainbow Dash’s eyes- -and Rainbow Dash understood.

She smiled. “You’re going after them.”

“Of course. They are weak, and I am strong…therefore, their things belong to me by definition. Including those mares.”

“But how are we going to find them? On those motor-things, they’re probably halfway to Ponyville by now!”

“Motorcycles,” corrected Five. “And I had Philomena attach a tracking device to that unfortunately named unicorn.”

“You- -you knew this was going to happen the whole time, didn’t you?”

“Of course.” She reached into her bag and removed a wheel-like device. “I assumed that this all was obvious. Now, if you would, please go spend time with my…Gell.”

“Um, no way,” said Rainbow Dash, floating into the air and crossing her forelegs. “No way am I letting you be the hero in all this.”

“I am no hero, Rainbow Dash,” said Five. “This is simply my job…and it is dirty, and violent. I am going to perform acts that, in your own time, were absolutely forbidden- -acts not meant for you to witness.”

“Don’t care. Not going anywhere. You owe me at least this.”

“I owe you nothing. All my creditors are dead.”

Five looked up at Rainbow Dash. “You are not going to give up on this endeavor, are you?”

“Nope. You’re not going to leave me behind.”

“So be it, I suppose. I suppose this will help you learn.”

“Learn what?”

“To hate me.”

Chapter 18: Investigation

View Online

Motion was an unnecessary anachronism. Thebe was aware of this; she knew that there was no real need for her to ever move from a single position. Most of the time, she did not. She simply stayed in one position, a central hub in the core of so many of her spells, her neural structure linked directly to her facility and to Equestria at large. Sometimes she would stay there for days, months, decades- -for her, there was little difference; her mind was so vast that a physical body was only tangentially required.

Some spells, however, could not intersect with the core magical nexus, either do to sensitivity or danger of interference- -for those, Thebe would need to move. That was not the only reason she maintained a mobile, physical body, however- -part of it was nostaligia. It harkened back to the days when she had been a young and confused unicorn, long before she had gained wings and far longer before she had sealed those very wings beneath steel.

For this instance, she had chosen to translocate herself. She passed through space and emerged in a small room, one of the many chambers she created as a reservoir for magically charged colloid that had since been drained. Her will caused the room to shift, expanding it vastly, the walls disassembling and reassembling to form a tremendous warehouse-like building that was completely empty, save for the equipment that would be more difficult to move, which was mostly rotors and coils of the decompression cooling systems- -some of the few components of the Pyramid that were purely physical and not fully constructed from magic.

The Grand Magus, though a fool, had actually managed to rouse her interest. He was an overly sentimental being committed to obsolete ideology- -likely, Thebe reasoned, from having spent so much of his youth with the “Princess of Friendship”. He was, however, the only living being who even approached Thebe’s power, if only distantly. She hated him, at least as much as a god could be bothered to hate a mortal- -and was amusedly annoyed at her embarrassment that she was following the lead he had given her.

Thebe had reached out into Equestria to learn the situation. Most information that came back was not relevant. One of her key Incurse spies, for example, had supposed the presence of a “time traveler” that Vale was currently investigating. That was hardly anything new, though. Time travel was not inconceivable; there were several known time travelers: a green pony with an antler horn, a sorcerer from the end of the Horn dynasty, and a certain brown pony with his derp-eyed sidekick. None of them were relevant. Thebe did not bother with time travel- -her experiences with it had proved that it was largely useless, constrained by looping causality- -but she did note that time travelers always came from the past, and never the future. That always made her wonder.

The information that had returned, however, was report of a crash in the Frontier Zone. Backward triangulation showed that the crash site as well as a destroyed village and the Changeling Hive had been in a straight line- -as if something had simply marched across the land in one unwavering direction.

Crashes of things from the Beyond were not unusual. Most ponies did not bother to realize the fact that “Equestria” was not the only life-containing zone in Painbios. There were many lifeforms outside, most so strange that most ponies would not even recognize them as living things. There were the coral-like Rotali, the stone-like T’Rv, the living magic that called itself the Incurse, and countless others. Things sometimes fell through the holes in the firmament, bits of civilizations above- -often, though, of civilizations that had not darkened the sky in eons.

Thebe’s magic condensed in the empty room, forming objects and giving them color and the illusion of mass. It resolved into a physical representation of the three-dimensional records of the crash site that she had acquired- -including the body and severed head of an unfortunate Pegasus.

The image itself was poor, and incomplete. Thebe began processing it through her own mind, correcting it as necessary, using algorithm spells as support to resolve the image. As the image resolved and cleaned itself, she floated over it, her robe flowing beneath her.

The pieces were badly damaged. She recalled having detected something entering the atmosphere. As was procedure with any unauthorized Beyonder vessel, she had brought it down. Theoretically, nothing could have survived the blast- -let alone the ship. Whatever material it was made of was remarkably durable.

As she moved over the simulated wreckage, she suddenly noticed a symbol on one piece of the wreckage. She separated a copy of the symbol from the piece of metal and displayed it in front of her. It was complicated and convoluted- -but she recognized it. The spells that parsed her memory immediately began pouring through the countless insignias and designs that she knew, searching for corresponding images which scrolled through the air to the right of the image she held. Within milliseconds, three appeared.

“Interesting,” said Thebe to herself. The three symbols, according to the annotated elements in her memory, were the respective symbols of the Brontasi, Argasi, and Aurasi, the three related races of metallic, Pegasus-like ponies that had been rendered extinct during the First Choggoth War over a million years prior.

That alone was not the interesting part. The interesting part was the obvious progression of symbols. Each one was a version of the one prior, with complexity increasing from right to left. The most complicated symbol was that of the Brontasi, the lowest caste, their bodies being made of bronze. Then came the Argasi middle class, with a less complicated symbol, and then finally the Aurasi ruling class, with their symbol almost basic- -a symbol Thebe knew well, as it adorned many of the lower machines that allowed her Pyramid to float, just as they once had for the flying mountain Olympus. The unknown symbol, however, was even simpler than the Aurasi symbol by far.

That alone was unusual. Thebe did not know why would that be, until something she had read in passing so long ago occurred to her.

“Adamantasi,” she said, smiling. She picked up the virtual wreckage that held the symbol and shifted the visual image, repairing it as necessary. Aurasi did not see in normal colors, and were far more sensitive to polarized light than organic ponies. Thebe shifted the image to resolve it into the colors that an Aurasi might have seen, and found that the insignia was covered in writing.

As she had suspected, there were, indeed, words surrounding the seal. They were mostly not readable- -in part because the camera used to take the image had not recoded properly, and in part from heavy damage from the impact and from being shot down- -but it was clear that something was written in ancient Aurasi.

That, of course, produced its own problem. Ancient Aurasi was the deadest of dead languages- -not even the Aurasi themselves would have known how to speak or read it by the time of their eradication. Thebe could still read some of it, though, and understood its structure- -and it seemed to be an epithet. It spoke of those who were pure rising to become new again. Beyond that, though, there was little she could glean from it.

She instead picked up the remainder of the wreckage and began to attempt to reassemble it. The algorithms in her mind and magic accelerated, and drew on her own creativity and mechanical knowledge, pulling the pieces together and projecting supposed elements between existing ones. As more pieces were added, the transitory elements changed, shifting or being removed, and the entire structure flowed around itself rapidly, repeatedly attempting to reconstruct in different ways.

It took her several hours to create an accurate reconstruction- -or at least one that was reasonably close. She had managed to rebuild part of the ship that had crashed, at least enough to extrapolate what it might have been. It had not been especially helpful, though. The “ship” was not really a ship at all- -it had no known space-faring architecture. There were no engines, gravity generators, or even life support. The walls were thick, though, and seemed to be meant to connect to something inside. Thebe could not tell if she were looking at a prison or a sarcophagus.

She set the model down, and floated backward to examine it from a distance. She was getting nowhere with it- -so she chose to project something else. To her side, the memory chip that the Grand Magus had provided her with appeared, and she read it. As she did, an image formed beside her, cast out of translucent red magic. Beside her appeared the image of what the Grand Magus had seen, projected at life-size.

Thebe contemplated it for a moment. There was slightly more detail on the large scale. Thebe could see the way its armor was connected, how it seemed to lack any sort of logical joint system yet still moved fluidly, and how it only appeared marginally symmetrical. She took special note of the posture, and the way it stood- -and most importantly, the helmet. From the image, she imagined that its featureless faceplate was probably partially translucent, or at least the parts of it that were not connected to the various machines that surrounded it. From the distorted image, however, it was impossible to see what kind of face lurked beneath that mask.

“What are you?” asked Thebe as she watched the projection move on a loop, continually marching gracefully forward, looking toward the “camera”, and then flashing back to its original position and repeating the motion. The image was too distorted, though, and nothing more could be gained from it.

So Thebe moved on. She displayed a large, miniature overlay of the descent of the craft, and continue her work. From this, she extracted information on its trajectory. The image enhanced, displaying the crash site without the wreckage, and Thebe hovered over it, looking for further clues as her mind correlated the object’s descent with potential courses that it might have taken through the Beyond, and what it might have passed- -and who out there might have encountered it before she had.

This took time, and the whole while, something was bothering her. She did not know what it was, but something seemed wrong about the whole situation; something did not add up. A wave of anxiety was washing over her, but it had no clear source.

Eventually, it got to the point where she was nolonger getting useful work done. She turned and floated off the projection, passing the strange projection of the alien life form that was now standing perfectly still beside the image of the wreckage.

That was when Thebe stopped, and for the first time in centuries, felt the cold pleasure of fear run through her gut. She realized what was wrong: she had never set the projection of the creature to stop looping.

She looked toward it, and its head turned toward her, as if in response. Then, slowly, it turned, and took a step toward her.

Thebe dropped to the ground and her robes separated, forming tentacles to shield herself from any potential attack. Her mind raced, and she wondered how she had not noticed what was happening. Now she felt it clearly, though. Foreign magic was infiltrating hers, spreading through lesser processes and rewriting them, establishing an external connection.

The figure somehow looked so clear now, and its armor seemed to glisten and glint as it moved- -and its eyes were now glowing with white light instead of Thebe’s red. That was not the only problem, though; Thebe could feel it pouring through her magic, its strange tendrils reaching outward through her, pulling back quantities of data that even she would not have been able to retrieve so fast.

Thebe did not know how it had happened- -arguably, it should have been impossible, but she was definitely isolating the presence of a virus within her spell architecture. It had somehow been encoded within the image that the Grand Magus had been given her, even though that should have been impossible- -the magic associated with the data would need to have been linked the instant he had seen it, in his eye.

“The eye of an Aurasi,” said Thebe, suddenly realizing what had happened.

The thing that was lurking in her mind was powerful, but Thebe was not weak. She did what she imagined it would never have expected- -she opened the portals it had generated even wider and reached into its mind.

She instantly knew that she had miscalculated. It had placed no protections on its mind, as if it had wanted her to see what was within- -and what was within its mind was horrifying. Thebe saw endless fire and pain and sundering of flesh by machines and magic. She saw a dead world of crystal, and the soldiers who marched across it with unfathomable weapons toward power. She felt a desire for power linked to a mad desire for destruction, a hatred that was entwined with a perverse love- -and screaming fury enclosed by singular, cold logic.

Within it, she saw the era before the Aurasi, of a world ruled by dragons and dotted with massive blue-lit machines that could not be comprehended, and saw the formation of the first from nothing through something black and pure and unfathomably beautiful.

Even for her the memories were too much for Thebe. Her mind rebelled as it tore too deeply, reaching into memories that even she could not know- -and she struck it down with a single blast of magic that purged her entire system.

The red-light figure stayed for just a moment, and for a fraction of a second, as it reached forward with its five-fingered hand, Thebe thought she heard it say something in a language she may once have known. Before she would even imagine what it was saying, though, it flickered and Vanished.

Thebe caught her breath, and slowly lifted herself into the air once more. The room behind her collapsed around her, returning to what it should have been. She had just made a critical mistake, but for some reason, she could not stop smiling.

For once in so long, she had encountered something new. There were only so many arcane texts she could steal and pour through, and the progress of scientific and magical research was painstakingly slow- -but this was something she had not ever witnessed. The way it had moved through her, the way it had performed its spells that were clearly augmented by strange types of magic that even Thebe could not know- -it was beautiful. For once in so long, she had finally found an opponent, one with things that she wanted.

And, she decided, that thing and all the secrets it held within it must belong to her.

Chapter 19: Voice of Order

View Online

Rainbow Dash looked over the rocky sandstone ledge. Seeing much was almost impossible in the perpetual darkness- -something that had come to annoy her terribly, despite its usefulness for hiding- -but she could see the hole in the rocks that led to where Five was tracking the signal of that filthy pervert unicorn. The hole in the rocks was large, but nearly unnoticeable because it was simply an opening between two large rocks. Rainbow Dash would not have believed that it was where the enemy was hiding were it not for the two heavily armored guards standing outside.

One of them looked up to the rocks above, and Rainbow Dash ducked down next to Five, who was performing some kind of delicate operation with a large black mushroom and her ammunition.

“Okay,” said Rainbow Dash, whispering even though they were close to eighty feet away from the pair. “There’s two. I say you act as the distraction, and then I go in and knock them out.”

“Both of them?” said Five, sounding infuriatingly bored. “What is this, a Daring Do novel?”

Rainbow Dash’s eyes widened. “Wait…you read Daring Do?!”

“No. I find it trite, simplistic, unrealistic, and actually rather racist against the ahuizotl. But it had been written for four centuries, so there is no way I could not be aware of such contrivances.”

“Four centuries…is A.K Yearling immortal or something?”

“Of course not. Well, probably not. There’s been more than one writer, obviously. Needless to say, what works in books does not operate well in the real world.” She clicked her clip into her rifle and shifted the barrel, extending it. That, in some ways, explained how she was able to fit it under her wings so well. Before Rainbow Dash knew what was happening, Five perched the gun on the rocks and fired exactly two shots. “Things in real life are so much easier.”

Rainbow Dash’s eyes widened. “You- -you didn’t just- -” She looked over the edge of the rocks and saw the two ponies below slumped over, lying in pools of something dark that was rapidly expanding beneath each of them.

She spread her wings and soured down to them. Her heart was beating fast- -far too fast. She had expected an adventure leading to a heroic rescue, with hoof-fights and traps and possibly magic. She had not taken Five’s warning seriously because her mind could not comprehend what she had meant: death. Rainbow Dash suddenly realized that Five never meant to leave any survivors.

The ponies below were not moving. Rainbow Dash took careful inventory of what had happened to them; each had a small circular wound in their neck where their armor was weakest. They had never seen it coming.

“What did you do?” she cried as Five descended behind her. “Are they…are they…?”

“I find it strange,” said Five. “I mention biological weapons, and you accept it. So strange. You did not ask if they were still active, or what they were.”

Rainbow Dash had no idea what Five was babbling about- -or how she could be so calm. “What? What are you?” Rainbow Dash backed away slowly. “You’re…you’re insane!”

“I assure you. I am not,” said Five. “But the answer to the question you did not ask: it was the mushrooms.”

“Mush…mushrooms?”

“That is what was used to kill the bison. Mushrooms. They’re parasitic as hyphae, hepatotoxic when fruiting, and have neurotoxic spores.”

One of the ponies twitched and tried to rise. Something within him gurgled, and he fell to the ground again. Rainbow Dash could hear him crying beneath his helmet.

“Wait…you didn’t kill them?”

“Well, not yet. This isn’t an AP rifle. The bullets just barely went through. So, obviously, I poisoned them.”

“Will they…be okay?”

“Oh, no. They will be blind, and in a lot of pain for a few…well, weeks to years.” She pointed to the one who had not risen. “Also, I may have severed that one’s vocal chords…just a little bit, though.”

“Should we try to help him?”

“I’m not a doctor. Well…yes. No.” She proceeded toward the crevice in the rocks, and Rainbow Dash realized that there was a heavily rusted bunker door several feet back. Whatever it was connected to had been covered in rocks years ago. “Shall we go in?”

“No,” said Rainbow Dash, blocking Five’s path. “Before we do- -you have to promise me you won’t kill anypony!”

“Denied,” said Five.

“Then I won’t let you through!”

“Should I perhaps kill you?”

“Go ahead and try!”

Five sighed, and lowered her rifle. “Tell me, Ms. Dash. If the situation came down to one where you had to choose between the life of one of those hapless mares and one of the barbarians, what would be your course of action?”

“I wouldn’t let it come down to that,” said Rainbow Dash.

“I do not have that option. However…I do not actually like to kill. It is just so…boring. Now, if you are willing to witness some things…worse…I can try to avoid killing them.”

“As long as they don’t die.”

Five smiled, revealing her fangs- -and the fact that all of her teeth were oddly pointed. “Some might. A few have to. Now move.”

Rainbow Dash had no choice but to step aside- -and immediately knew that she had made a terrible mistake.

Promising Future was thrown to the concrete floor with enough force to knock out her breath. She felt an overwhelming urge to cry out- -but refused to do so. As soon as she had been thrown in the makeshift cages with the others, she had vowed that she would stay strong- -if only for the sake of all those mares and fillies around her who could not be.

For some reason, though, she had been separated from the others. They had been placed in low-ceilinged cells for “warehousing”, but for some reason, she had been taken away from them. That terrified her- -but she did not let the earth pony and Pegasus who took her away know. She had instead been looking for a way to escape, though none had presented itself.

She did not know where she was. The gang had not bothered to cover her cage- -they had let her see the way to their bunker or fallout shelter or whatever it was, because they knew- -and she knew, on some level- -that she would not ever have a chance to lead anypony back to it.

Promising Future gathered up her torn barmaid costume and looked into the stinking darkness of the room she had been placed in. As she did, the dirty fluorescent lights overhead hummed and flickered. The room was immediately filled with light- -and she realized that she was not alone.

“You,” she said, her eyes narrowing.

“Yes, me!” cried Flesh, standing up from where he was sitting- -something, Promising Future realized, that was not a chair, but rather a mare covered in straps and riding gear that Flesh was riding side-saddle. The mare’s mouth was sealed with black straps, but she was not crying- -rather, her eyes looked long dead and empty.

“We don’t have time for this,” said another pony in the room. Unlike Flesh, he was not somepony that Promising Future recognized. He was thin and sickly, with a cutie mark of a cracking whip. As he moved across the floor, Promising Future saw that he had a terrible limp- -and that the knee on his front left leg was surrounded by a metal support bracket and covered in bandages.

“Oh, come now, Whipcracker,” said Flesh. “Need more pain pills, do we? No…” He turned toward Promising Future. “After a hard day’s work, there should always be some time for fun.”

Promising Future’s eyes suddenly darted around the room. There were several other ponies- -Flesh, Whipcracker, as well as the Pegasus who had led her in and the dead-eyed mare. Three of them were about to do something terrible to her, and she knew that- -and she doubted that she could rely on the mare for help. Deep in her soul, she realized that that was soon to be her fate.

“No,” said Flesh, harshly, grabbing Promising Future’s head in his magic. “Look at me. I am the one who owns you now.”

“Nopony owns me.”

“Feisty,” said the Pegaus, and Flesh glared at him, causing him to recoil.
“Only. I. Get. To. Talk,” said Flesh. He smiled. “And our guest, of course.” He turned back Promising Future, still smiling. “Do you know who I am?”

“Your name is Flesh,” she said.

“Very good. But that is Master Flesh to you. Or just Master.” He stepped back and bowed with excessive feigned grace. There was nothing at all graceful about him, and he smelled like mushroom beer and expensive cologne. A smell that Promising Future would now forever hate. “I am the mayor, owner, and sole proprietor of your town.”

“No you aren’t.”

“Silly little mare. Of course I am. By right of conquest. I was also voted in by my…associates.”

“You’re not going to get away with this. My father will- -” She felt her mouth snapped closed with magic.

“Your father is a burnt out husk. They all are. Not one of them can take us on. We made sure of that.” He turned back to Promising Future and stared into her eyes. “But please, dear, be honest with yourself.” He walked around her, pulling at one of her wings, forcing it to extend and running his hoof through her down. “Look at these wings, at this color- -you are definitely the most beautiful Pegasus I’ve ever caught.”

“Do I need to be here for this?” asked Whipcracker.

“Shut it,” said Flesh. He returned his attention to Promising Future. “Honestly, some ponies. I’m trying to have a conversation with this lovely lady. Where was I? Oh, yes. You see, you know you want this.”

Promising Future struggled, trying to escape, but she could not escape the gelatinous magic that surrounded her.

“No, not like that,” said Flesh, chuckling. “Not yet. But isn’t this what you wanted? You told me once…before you know I was, well, me. You wanted nothing more than to get out of that town, to move up in life. Well, look at you now! With wings like that, I’m sure you’re buyer will be wealthy. You’ll be going on a one-way trip to high-society!” he waved his hoof in front of her, holding his head next to hers, as if they were looking together into the future. “Maybe you can even send back some of his money, so that I don’t have to do this to the next crop of mares…because it does get tiring when the vast majority of them are…frankly, uggos.”

Promising Future felt her jaw being released. “You know this isn’t right?”

“What, trying to appeal to my morality?” He laughed heartily, something that rapidly decayed into angry shouts. “I don’t have any! I can’t afford to! Not out here…” He looked down at her. “But before we box you up and send you off, well…”

“What?”

Flesh stepped back, and drew out a small knife. He licked it, wetting the blade, and then suddenly shoved it into the saddled mare’s shoulder.

“No!” cried Promising Future. The mare who had been stabbed only winced at the pain. “Why did you- -”

“To show you what happens if you disobey your Master,” said Flesh, grinning as he twisted the knife. “Now,” he said, facing Promising Future and leaning over her, smiling. “I’m afraid that in all that work in Appleloosa, I think my beautiful horn has become dirty.”

The Pegasus snickered, and Whipcracker looked uncomfortable.

“So what?”

“So clean it.” His eyes flashed back to the mare. “Or perhaps the next one goes in her flank…”

“No,” said Promising Future. “No.” She clenched her teeth. “Do you have a…washcloth…Master?”

He laughed heartily. “Washcloth…oh, that’s rich….”

Before she could react, he pushed forward, shoving his horn into her mouth. She felt the bony protrusion scraping across her teeth and tongue, and she closed her eyes as it pushed against the roof of her mouth. It did not have any particular taste- -but she still felt herself crying.

It pushed harder on the roof of her mouth, nearly lifting her up, and she felt like she was about to gag. Flesh was only laughing, and Promising Future felt his magic holding her in place.

Then she heard a click, and saw a flash of light through her eyelids. She felt herself fall backward, landing on her back, the horn still in her mouth. She tensed, her mind creating all sorts of images of what was about to happen next.

Then she heard the screaming, and opened her eyes. Her mind skipped for a moment, not able to comprehend how she was facing the ceiling with a horn in her mouth, but not seeing the unicorn it was attached to. She should have had her face buried in his dirty mane, but somehow, he was gone.

She sat up, and saw him writhing in agony on the floor before her. The world seemed to move in slow motion as she realized that his horn was in her mouth- -but he was separate, a charred and slightly glowing stump on his forehead pouring out magic into the air like liquid smoke.

“Horn shot!” said a voice to her right. She turned to see a blue-haired bat pony with a rifle, smiling widely. “Look at that Dash! I never get a good horn shot!”

The blue cyborg Pegasus appeared beside her, although from Promising Future’s perspective, the Pegasus seemed almost gray from nausea, as though she had seen things that had affected her deeply.

The Pegasus guard immediately rushed for an attack, and the bat raised one of her metal-clad hooves. There was a flash of light as something was projected around a spur of metal, and she thrust as the Pegasus came in contact with her. He screamed as she twisted the energy blade, and there was a sickening thump as one of his wings fell to the floor.

The Pegaus fell with it, screaming and weeping. He tried to stand several times, but with one wing missing, he was not balanced and simply fell over.

“Funny thing,” said the bat, still smiling. “You can’t live with just one. Can’t walk. Dash, take note of this! Look! He’s going to have to have the other amputated!”

“You…insane…” muttered the blue Pegasus.

The bat’s eyes suddenly turned to Promising Future, and they narrowed in anger.

“No,” she said, crossing the room. “That is mine!” She reached into Promising Future’s mouth with a pair of metal claws and pulled out Flesh’s horn. She examined it for a moment. “Not all of it,” she muttered. She placed the horn in the corner of her mouth like a cigarette, and then picked up Flesh, who was still badly disoriented from having his horn severed.

One of the bat’s metal gauntlets shifted, producing sevreal fingers that merged and converted into a single large plier.

“I need the root too,” she said. She grabbed the stump on Flesh’s head, and he screamed in pain- -and then the claw started to revolve.

There was a sickening crack, and then the bat tore out the remainder of the horn from Flesh’s head, holding up the bloody root like a trophy. Flesh, meanwhile, collapsed into a scream that seemed as though it would never end as the magic accumulated in his body poured out through the hole in his forehead. Promising Future did not know how, or even why, but the magic seemed to curve in the air in broad arcs and direct itself toward the bat pony- -impacting directly around her head, where Promising Future could see that the bat had a line of numerous small blue horns just beneath her mane.

“You see,” said the bat pony, admiring the horn. “Unicorn-horn ammunition has unusual effects on magic users. It is definitely not cerorite, but sometimes, if they use shields spells, it makes them explode. Or goes right through…oh, the looks on their faces.”

Before she could finish, the earth pony with the bad knee screamed in rage and terror and attacked the blue Pegasus, pushing her back and extending a hoof-blade. “No! Don’t hurt me or the Blue- - ” He screamed again, this time in pain as he was thrown backward, clutching his face. A deep gash had appeared across it and was pouring blood. Promising Future felt nauseous when she realized that some of the fluid dripping from his face was not blood at all, but rather the fluid from inside his left eye.

The Pegasus looked terrified and confused. Her eyes flicked to her wing, where several long golden feathers were covered in blood.

“Rainbow Dash,” said the bat pony. “You didn’t tell me you were using wing blades. If I had known that, you could have- -”

“Look out!” cried Promising Future.

It was too late. While the bat and Pegasus had been distracted by Whipcracker, Flesh had moved, crawling across the floor. He had picked up a large and blood-stained hammer, clumsily at first because he was not used to using his hoofs- -and now slammed it against the side of the bat pony’s face.

There was a cracking sound as her skull shattered. The entire right side of it just seemed to collapse, as though it were made of paper. It was almost comical the way her cheekbones and jaw just gave way, like a cartoon character flattening

“Ha!” screamed Flesh. “That’s what you get for taking my horn!”

“Five!” cried the blue mare, the destruction of her friend’s head waking her from her momentary trance.

Five did not fall, though. Her head had been driven to the left by the force of the hammer, and she held it there for a moment. Then she gave a ragged, blood filled sigh and lifted it. Promising Future nearly vomited at the sight. Five’s face had been crushed; half of it was flat and the flesh torn away. Half of her jaw hung limply, one of its joints having been pulverized, exposing her teeth and toungue. Her right eye socket had also be crushed and the eye within it destroyed, the eye-fluid within leaking down into her bleeding muzzle. Yet, despite the damage, Five did not cry out.

Flesh saw this, and rage flared in his eyes.

“How dare you not be in- -” He brought down the hammer again. “- -pain!” He slammed her again, and then again and again, each time breaking her body worse, shattering her face until there was nothing even recognizable as a pony, breaking both her front legs, bringing it down on her torso.

“Stop!” cried the blue Pegasus. She flew forward over the now weeping and inactive Whipcracker. As she did, she fell into a roll- -one so graceful that Promising Future momentarily forgot about the ruined- -but still somehow standing- -bat pony taking a sledge-hammer beating.

There was a glint of gold, and a scream from Flesh- -not of pain, but of rage. The hammer he had been holding slipped out of his remaining hoof as the hammer flew across the room, clanging against the metal wall and falling to the floor.

“Five,” said the blue mare, “ are you…no, we need to get you to a doctor right…”

Blue sparks suddenly poured out of Five’s body, and Promising Future held her breath. She did not know what was happening, but she knew magic when she saw it. She watched as the blue energy crossed the damage, pulped flesh on the bat pony’s body and as the pieces began to surge forward, reconnecting and rebuilding themselves.

Five lifted her broken neck as it snapped back into place, and stepped forward on a leg that was no longer broken. With one of her hoofs, she pushed her jaw back into place while her cheekbone popped back into place and her eye returned to its normal location. For just a moment, Promising Future saw its narrowed pupil as a tiny triangle before it widened into its normal round shape.

“You know,” she said, spitting out a mouthful of blood. “That rather hurt.”

“What…what are you?” said Flesh, stepping backward, trying to staunch the bleeding of his mostly severed front foreleg. “Who are you?”

“I have no name,” said the bat, stepping forward. She no longer seemed to be enjoying herself. “There was nopony around to give me one when I was born. As to what…I am the daughter of Princess Luna and Choggoth Oblivion. And your horn have become my property!”

“Go to Tartarus!”

“I actually do, periodically,” said Five, once again smiling. She raised her rifle and pointed it at Flesh’s head. “Maybe you will too.”

“No! Stop!” cried the blue Pegasus, flying across the room and interposing herself between Five and Flesh. “You can’t!”

“Yes I can. He is not wearing armor. One shot is all that is needed.”

“That’s not what I mean! You can’t kill him! It isn’t right!”

“Nothing is right. Nothing is wrong. Move, Rainbow Dash.

Five pointed with her wing at Promising Future. “I am not claiming justification, but did you see what he did to her?”

“Yeah, and you cut his horn off! Isn’t that good enough for you?”

“Well, it was. Then he beat me to death with a hammer.”

“You’re not dead!”

“I don’t care. If only her were stallion enough to do the job properly.” Her eyes turned to Promising Future. “You,” she said. “You were the only one truly wronged this day. Perhaps you shall choose his fate?”

Promising Future opened her mouth, but no words came out. She had lived a relatively simple life, if a harsh one- -but what she had just experienced was far beyond what she had ever wanted to see. She could still feel Flesh’s Horn in her mouth, even though Five had taken it- -but she also saw the three ponies on the ground around her. One half-blinded, one sobbing as he hugged his severed wing, and one with no horn, no magic, and one leg mostly gone, glaring at her but almost seeming to plead.

Then her eyes turned toward the other mare. The one who had not moved since the commotion started, who had just been staring off into space blankly. At that point, she felt her lips forming the world “yes”. She knew it had to be done, to end this madness and torment. He deserved it.

“No,” she said, shaking her head. She hardly felt herself saying it, but she felt a profound wave of relief. “No. He’s done. He won’t cause us any problems anymore. Just…just let him go.”

Five frowned. “You’re no fun.”

Her eyes flashed green, and Flesh suddenly drew his side arm with his remaining hoof, something he somehow did perfectly even though he almost surely had no idea how to use them without magic. Instead of pointing it at any of the other ponies, however, he directed the end of the barrel toward his own chin.

“No!” he cried, suddenly terrified, tears streaming down his face. “No, please, stop!”

There was a loud crack, a flash of light, and a fizzling sound as his brain was instantly melted and bubbled through the hole in his forehead where his horn had once been. Promising Future could hold it in no longer; she turned to her side and vomited.

“No!” cried the blue Pegasus, picking up the limp remnants of Flesh. He was clearly quite dead, though, and his eyes stared blankly at them all. A smell of badly cooking meat and voided bowels filled the air, and only accelerated Promising Future’s heaving. “You said you would let her decide! She didn’t decide this!”

“She chose the wrong answer,” said Five, shrugging.

“Please…please don’t hurt me,” muttered Whipcracker, pulling himself into a corner.

“Why bother?” said Five, picking up one of Flesh’s side-arms and immediately disassembling it, pulling out the power crystal and some of the electronics. “But you, Pegasus. Leave that wing. It’s mine.”

“No…it’s- -it’s my wing!”

Five turned her attention toward the saddled mare. “You,” she said. “Hey you!”

“Leave her alone,” said Promising Future. “She doesn’t have anything to do with this!”

Five seemed to ignore her. “Come on, you. Wake up.”

“Stop it,” said the blue Pegasus. “Can’t you see some bad stuff happened to her?”

“Clearly,” said Five. “Her primary mind is completely shot…but that never really mattered, did it?”

The mare suddenly turned toward Five. Her eyes were still blank, but they had narrowed.

“Oh, yes,” said Five. “I can tell. You’re not really a pony at all. You are Incurse.”

The mare expertly slid off her own bridle and bit. “How can you see me?” she said, her voice hoarse and cold but strangely unaffected by her apparent situation.

“I just can,” said Five, defensively. “Weird choice, though.”

“I think it suits me. Although my host is…depleted. Perhaps I shall take a full-time position.”

“This one,” said Five, pointing at Promising Future. “And the others. Can you get them back to Appleoosa?”

The mare stared blankly, then nodded.

“Good. As for myself and Dash, much looting shall be done this day. Isn’t that right, Ms. Dash?”

All Rainbow Dash could do was wait in the corner of the room as Five poured through the cabinets, searching for supplies. She felt weak, and she was shaking. Her wings were covered in pony blood, and she could not bear to look at them. The blood stank horribly, and she knew that it would never come out.

The things she had seen had been burned into her mind. Badly beaten mares in filthy cages, piles of bones on display like trophies- -those were not things than ponies were ever meant to see. What was worse, though, was Five. She moved through ponies like a plague, destroying. She had killed several ponies without hesitation or remorse, but she had also done so much worse.

The worst, in her opinion, was the Pegasus whose wing she had taken. Just the thought of it made Rainbow Dash shake with fear, the idea that something that important could be removed so simply. She knew that the her reaction would be the same as of that poor stallion, holding onto the wing until it was finally wrested away.

“Not much in the way of food,” said Five. “At least not hear. A good set of power crystals, though. I will also need to get the chaingun ammo from the pair in the front. Most of this, though, is low quality. Perhaps some armor oil…”

“How could you?” said Rainbow Dash.

Five looked up. She seemed once again as disinterested as ever. She was standing in a room with Rainbow Dash, a now unconscious one-winged Pegasus, and a corpse, but treated it as though she were simply in a grocery store. “Guns, some level of magic, a lack of morality?” she guessed.

“This…why?” asked Rainbow Dash.

“My actions largely lack reasons,” admitted Five.

“How can you say that?” whispered Rainbow Dash, glaring at Five. “How can you say that?!”

“I believe I just did.”

“All these ponies, everything that you just did! And it was for no reason?”

“Says the one who cut off a leg and half-blinded a pony? I still need to check on those blades. But…” Five sighed, and she set down the container that she was using to collect scraps. “I have a voice in my head,” she said. “Well, you can think of it like a voice. ‘Order, Order, Order’, that is all it ever says. Every second of every day. Compelling me to bring order to the world, to fight the forces of evil and chaos.”

“You call this order?” spat Rainbow Dash.

“I hate that voice,” said Five. “I hate it more than anything! It’s not my voice! So I defy it! Chaos, destruction, pain, I spread them because I am not Anhelios! I take what they love, because I can never love anything. The voice just screams louder, and I laugh at it- -at my own pain! Because this is me!” She glared into Rainbow Dash’s eyes, not with anger, but with the desire to be understood. “You wouldn’t know,” she said. “There is no way you could. To be born with your cutie mark, with a fate that was locked the instant Cavern Melody returned from the void, for five generations…”

She trailed off, and neither of them spoke as Five continued to strip the scrap from ponies she had slain and wounded.

Chapter 20: A Time to Rise

View Online

A few days back, somepony had said “well, at least things can’t possibly get any worse.” Toxic shock had, at the time, had believed him. Then everything had.

First, the disease had spread to all available doctors and nurses. There were none left, aside from Toxic Shock’s medics, who were at best able to perform triage care. His requests for new doctors were being repeatedly unanswered.

At first he had sent as many equidroids as he could find into the wards to care for the patients, but that had only ended up backfiring. As machines, equidroids were immune to disease, but it had turned out that they could carry the infections agent past decontamination. Before Toxic Shock had even realized what had happened, the entire city was infected. He had been forced to activate an illegal quarantine, placing his Wasetlander soldiers at the edge of the city with strict orders to repel any invaders, regardless of their flags.

Hazard gear had also proven to be ineffective. Those who were sent in, even in full gear, came out infected. He himself had only managed to escape infection because his special talent was specifically for avoiding contamination, and his cyborg body and protective spells defended him. The others were gone, though. Anypony who had been sent in had not come back out; even he was now unable to leave at risk of carrying the disease with him.

The only “doctors” who joined him were the equidroids, as well as a pair of demon ponies who had been shipped in by pentagram. Acid Enema and Razorblade Urology, however, seemed to cause more death than they did healing and really seemed to be more interested in medical research than actually doing any good. Astoundingly, though, even they were not immune to the infection. They were showing some signs of contamination, although the disease cased few symptoms and progressed far more slowly than it did in normal ponies.

The etiological agent of the disease was still unknown, and that was maddening. Toxic Shock was a containment specialist, not a doctor- -but he knew that every disease had a cause. It appeared, based on what Cuaitl had been able to glean before his inevitable demise, was that there was a physical parasite within the infected- -but it did not always stay physical. It spread and moved like a spell, one adaptive enough to rewrite itself to avoid any form of treatment. Even attempts to remove the spell proved fruitless; the spell would simply convert into a fully material form devoid of magic.

Toxic Shock looked out over the beds of patients. Many of them had fallen silent, resolving into a kind of catastasis where they simply stared into space. Others babbled nonsensically, and many just screamed without stopping even to sleep. Their bodies had now become almost completely unrecognizable masses of tumors and raw flesh.

That alone would have been bad enough. Toxic Shock understood cancer and deformity- -several of his own soldiers were the products of exposed organic life in the Wastelands, their bodies and minds twisted by the concentrated pollution and disease of his homeland. If it were only that, it would simply be a disease.

There was something he knew, though, that terrified him. He knew what lurked in the back of the ward, strapped to a bed. He knew that Patient Zero had looked just like all these ponies, once, but had continued to mutate, becoming something far worse, something that terrified even him.

From unconscious, Epicenter suddenly gained awareness. She knew that it was now time. Her mind had healed and been repaired from its damaged state.

She had no eyes to open, but in her mind, she saw the machine she needed to build to give her sight. There were so many within her, so many schematics and so much understanding. They were her birthright, things that she felt a compulsion, a need to obtain.

Sight was a mostly useless sense anyway. She instead extended her magic, taking inventory of the space around her, the spells clicking together and formulating within her mind easily, as if the magic that flowed through her was an extension of her own body.

She immediately found that somebody had attached her to an extra-long hospital bed by straps. Their goal had apparently been to prevent her from moving, although their method had been inherently flawed. She simply raised her right hand with a sudden jerking motion and tore through the flimsy fabric. She then reached over to the other one and her fingers moved delicately over the locking mechanism, releasing herself.

Something seemed wrong, though. Something about her fingers seemed incorrect, but she did not know what. Her mind immediately determined the cause: they were bare, not covered in metal and plastic. She knew that life was not meant to exist outside of armor; it was too fragile on its own. The armor was life, and it was a part of her, but it existed at present only in her mind.

So she stood in the darkness. Night had fallen, but night had fallen everywhere. There were too holes where the sun and moon had been, where Order had failed. Her own Order was still weak; her body had formed enough to operate, but was not yet complete. There were still shadows in her mind, of her former self screaming in the darkest and least secured corners.

She walked forward, her two legs moving easily beneath her across the cold floor, dragging through the bodily fluids that contaminated it. The thoughts and ideas were already flowing through her mind, and she knew what needed to be done, and why. In fact, she could not tell why she had never thought about it before. She distantly remembered that there had been a time before she was herself, but she could not recall clearly. It was as though she had been asleep for so long, and was now awake.

The patients watched her as she passed by them. Those that were close enough to being corrected simply watched her pass, understanding what she was and what they would become. Even the dead watched, their eyes slowly turning to follow their future. Life and death, of course, were only illusions. There was no difference between the states unless they were viewed through the lens of a primitive mind.

Some, though, retained vestiges of their damaged minds. They saw something that horrified them, and they started screaming. Nobody would come, of course- -those were the ones who resisted the truth, and the ones who screamed endlessly when they were forced to face what they had always been meant to become.

The equidroids moved about her silently, not seeing her as she passed. She had already entered their natural programming, redesigning it in minor ways that they were unlikely to notice, forcing them to be blind to her. Looking at them, though, she felt profoundly hungry. She wanted them, their metal, the robotics of their bodies. She wanted to feel those machines against her, liking to the machines already inside her, to feel them penetrating her and embracing her, making her strong.

As she moved, Epicenter passed a pair of creatures to large to be ponies. One was gaunt, his skin covered in scars like burns, and the other much wider. They were both a pale orange color, with skeletal, vestigial wings and small, thick horns. Epicenter knew them, at least distantly. They were able to resist being healed. The vector simply found nothing within them to repair; their bodies were organic, but not truly alive, and their souls were made of some material that was not compatible with the equipment.

“Hey,” said the wide one, tapping the scarred one with his cloven hoof. “Look at this! One of them finally matured!”

They watched her pass, one of them taking notes. They did not know what she was- -there was no way that their primitive world could have known of hers, a world that she for some reason could not recall- -but they had always known, since their arrival, of the process. Distantly, Epicenter was aware that the soul that saw through their eyes might just have recognized what she had become.

Then, suddenly, a pony appeared before her. He was not infected. Somehow, his magic and the machines that made up so much of his body had preserved him. He seemed to be moving through the dim light, his path lit by the glow of the spell that covered his face. It seemed that he was inspecting the wards, walking amongst them, looking at what he likely perceived incorrectly as disease and death.

He looked up. Epicenter was conscious of the expression on his face- -the look of annoyance that rapidly progressed to shock, and then terror as she looked down at him.

Before he could react, she raised her hand to him. She could not escape the thirst any longer. He screamed as most of his robotic body was torn apart and separated from him. The equidroids stopped what they were doing and turned toward him, confused as to why he was making so much sound- -and then they bent to Epicenter’s will and turned back to their work.

“What are you doing?” screamed the pony. “Security! Containment breach class Seven!”

Epicenter ignored him. She took away the parts of his body that she could use, leaving the containment vessel that contained his spine and head, as well as the one that contained the fragments of organs that still functioned. They would serve no purpose to her.

The mechanical components disassembled before her, and she felt her mind race as she picked out each one and put it with the others. There was a scematic in her head, but half the pieces required were not present- -so she had to solve the puzzle, to figure out what was needed to make herself whole.

The pieces connected to her body. Few of them were truly useful; there was only enough material to properly cover her left arm, and even then, only poorly.

The pony stopped calling out. She had taken the part of him that enabled him to speak, leaving it perfectly intact. She amplified the signal, broadcasting it to those waiting outside.

“This is Toxic Shock,” she said in his voice. “By my official order, I am lifting the quarantine.”

“Boss,” said a static-ridden voice on the other side. “Are you sure?”

“The situation has decayed beyond our capacity. We cannot treat the patients here at this facility. Summon transport ships, and prepare for patient evacuation.”

The equidroids responded almost immediately, and the demons snickered. Epicenter lowered the vocal transmitter, dropping it on the pile of still-living remnants of a pony that were glaring up at her.

She approached the door, joined by one who had been a doctor, but was now nearing the end of his process as well. Epicenter hated him- -by definition, she hated all her kind. She wanted to kill them all almost as much as she craved the machines, but knew that it would be impossible and contrary to her goal, whatever that was.

The doctor entered the code to the door, and it hissed open. Epicenter stepped out into the world that she knew to be called Equestria.

Chapter 21: The House of Five

View Online

The air itself seemed to crack as Five pulled the small round handle with its glowing purple light. Rainbow Dash had watched Five remove the handle form her supplies, and at first had not understood why she was bothering with a small ring of pale metal, turning it in the air like some lame mime act.

Then it had opened. The universe itself had opened, a door in space, and for a moment Rainbow Dash forgot about the death and violence that she had witnessed.

“What…the hay,” she said, craning her neck arouond the door, flying up in the air and looking around it. It had no real supports, and was not visible by from the back, just the front, where it looked like a dim, square doorway. Air was coming out of it; it was warm and smelled like a very old building.

“Come on,” said Five, lifting her supplies and motioning for Rainbow Dash to carry her own box of loot. Rainbow Dash’s container was filled mostly with gems, precious metals, crystals, bits of electronics, and ammunition. Five had taken other things, but the most apparent thing she carried was a blood-stained sack containing the various dismembered body parts she had claimed- -including Flesh’s entire body.

Five stepped through the door. Rainbow Dash almost did, but paused at the threshold. “Is it…is it safe?”

“Safe?” said Five, poking her head out of the black void on the other side. “Says a pony who, if I recall, performs supersonic flight for a living? It’s just a door.”

“A door…yeah, right.” Rainbow Dash stepped through, and almost immediately felt strange. Something about the room she had stepped into made her vaguely anxious, although she did not know why. Her skin just seemed to be crawling- -even on her left limbs, which had “skin” made of some kind of golden, lightweight alloy- -and she just wanted to run.

The door closed behind her, and she saw Five turning the handle until the light became red. To her surprise, Rainbow Dash saw that there actually was a door, which looked like a storm door taken off somepony’s house.

“Someday I’m going to rewire this place,” said Five, and Rainbow Dash heard the sound of a hoof tapping against the wall. “Hmm. This is either the lights or the garbage disposal.”

There was a clicking sound, and the lights overhead ignited.

“Oh, wow!” said Rainbow Dash in awe. She realized that they were standing at the edge of a hallway of some kind, and one that was actually rather fancy. The walls were made of wood on their lower halves and strange floral wall paper on the tops, and there was some level of craftsmanship that Rarity probably would have appreciated.

Rainbow Dash turned back toward the door, and then looked down at the hallway- -and the two others that went to the left and right. “How did you- -this is awesome! What is this place?”

“The Pocket,” said Five, setting down her bags. Philomena poked her head out of one of them and looked around. She did not seem happy, but Five had insisted that the bird not be “outside” alone. “It is a synthetic Clover torus. Since you are not trained in theory of any type: essentially, a tiny synthetic dimension that I use.”

“Does…does everypony have one?”

Five shook her head. “No. They are...uncommon, I suppose, although not unheard of. They are usually used as portable warehouses for small places.”

“So its…how big is it in here?”

“No idea. Pretty big, but not infinite.”

“Let me get this straight- -you had this the whole time? This house thing? And you were having me sleep outside?”

“You can feel it, can’t you?”

Rainbow Dash nearly asked “what”, but realized that she did. A strange sense of unnervement, as though she were somewhere where she did not want to be. “Yeah,” she said. “It feels…” she tried to recall a similar situation. “Like back when me and Applejack went to the Castle of the Two Sisters on a dare…like somepony was watching, but not really anypony- -like being alone, but not.” She shivered. “I don’t like it.”

“Neither do I. Neither does Philomena. My grandmother used to live in here, but I do not know how. I mostly use it as a workshop, and for storage. She took a deep breath, as though she were about to yell.

“Don’t,” said Gell, materializing from one of the hallways that was especially dark. Rainbow Dash looked up, once again shocked by her appearance- -but oddly surprised that her long horns did not scrape on the tall ceiling. Gell’s large, batlike ears flicked slightly. “I can hear you, you know. And I smell something…tasty.”

Five threw the bag of body parts to Gell. “Here,” she said.

Gell looked at the bag, and then at Five. “You did something again, without me. You know how I feel about that, An.”

“Don’t call me An. And I was trying to be subtle.”

“You call what you did subtle?”

Gell looked at Rainbow Dash. “You brought her but not me?” She smiled. “Okay then. Hey, did you ‘break her in’?”

“No. She slew nopony. She did take an eye, though, and a leg.” She pointed to the bag. “As you will see.”

“A leg?” said Gell, visibly drooling. She opened the sack, and her eyes widened.

“No way!” she said. “You got me- -oh, Satin, there’s a whole pony in here!”

“Don’t eat it all at once. Smoke it or something.”

Gell reached into the bag and pulled out the remnants of the unicorn Flesh. He was now stiff, but still seeming to stare with glass-like eyes. Gell opened her mouth wide and brought it down on his skull. There was a horrible crunch as she cut through it, tearing away flesh and bone. Rainbow Dash was forced to look away.

“There is a wing in there as well,” said Five.

“I love wings,” said Gell, her mouth full of pony. “They are by far the best part…but don’t worry, Dashie,” she said to Rainbow Dash, “those wings of yours, destroying those would be like destroying a piece of fine art!”

“Could you…um, not eat that in front of me?”

Gell looked down at the corpse that she was holding. “Oh. Yeah. That’s probably pretty shocking for you. But hey, that’s where meat comes from.” She put Flesh back in the sack and closed it. “I’m going to take him upstairs and get the parts done up. I’ll be back down when I’m done. I can even give Dashie the grand tour of our home!”

She laughed as she threw the blood-stained sack over her back and started off down the hallway.

“At least take a box of chain ammo!” called Five.

“No way,” said Gell. “You picked it up, you deal with it.”

“Idiot demon,” muttered Five.

“I heard that! ‘A proper lady handles her own castrations!’”

“That is not a real idiom!”

Gell just waved, and then disappeared into the shadows.

“She…kind of scares me,” said Rainbow Dash.

“Really?” said Five. “I don’t see it. Besides, she really does like you.”

“I noticed.”

“Not just like that,” said Five, picking up a box of electronics and glowing crystals and putting it on her back. She started walking down the hallway, and Rainbow Dash followed. “She is attracted to you, but there is more than that.”

“Like what?”

“As in…hmm. Perhaps she sees in you her ideal daughter.”

“As opposed to…her real daughter?”

“Which would be me. Sort of. Although I did not hatch from her egg.”

“Demons…lay eggs?”

“Of course. Don’t be an idiot.”

“And, what about you,” said Rainbow Dash, rolling her eyes. “Do you…”

“Of course not,” said Five. She looked back at Rainbow Dash. “And you?”

“M- -me?” stuttered Rainbow Dash. “No, I don’t- -I haven’t even- -not with a…not with a stallion anyway…”

“Neither have I. Mostly because I can’t. The equipment isn’t optimized for it. Parthogen and all. Well, I probably could, it would just hurt a lot. But it is interesting. Some historians have wondered if Scootaloo was.”

“Scoots,” said Rainbow Dash. Once again, she felt the blow of sadness crushing against her. The pain returned, this time far harder, and her spirit sunk. Scootaloo had barely become a mare when Rainbow Dash had departed. She was a pony that Rainbow Dash considered a sister, her only real family- -and now, like all the others, she was long-dead. “Scootaloo…what happened to her?”

“No idea,” said Five. “I do not follow the side characters so much. I can look it up later.”

“She’s…she’s dead, though, isn’t she?”

“Of course. They all are.”

“Even Scoots…” Rainbow Dash felt tears welling in her eyes. Knowing that her friends had gone was bad enough, but that the little orange filly had gone too was crushing. Logically, she knew that Scootaloo had probably lived a good life, but it felt like she had died as a child. Rainbow Dash had missed every element of her life- -her first trip to Cloudsdale, winning her first race, even the first time she would ever fly- -she had never seen any of those things, and now she never would.

“Five,” she said. “What…what is the point? Without them, why…why should I be alive when they aren’t?”

“Did you really think that any of this had a point?” said Five. “But you’re young. Trust me on this, as I am an old mare by your kind’s standards: life has no point. It is a sick joke, to induce matter to believe that its course truly matters. Our consciousness only exists for the universe to torture us as we fight the inevitable- -and woe to those that cannot reach that fate.”

“That’s terrible. How can you even say something like that?”

“Because that is the truth. Of course, you are free to believe lies as you choose. I, however, am not.”

Five pushed open the door to one of her several offices and entered. A highly depressed Rainbow Dash entered behind her, and five heard the sound of a gasp that indicated that at least some of Rainbow Dash’s sadness had been subsumed by her awe at the number of artifacts and incomplete projects that lined the walls and shelves.

There certainly were plenty. The shelves were lined with various relics that Five had either failed to categorize or was presently working on, and the walls were lined with freshly repaired or constructed tools or weapons, many half completed. On the far end was a desk covered in a mess of power crystal circuits, magical rune systems, dispersion spikes, shell casings, and the like- -as well as an abundance of surplus test equipment and tools.

“Oh wow,” said Rainbow Dash, flying up through the air past the number of components that were dangling from the ceiling. She picked an arm of power armor that Five had been working on, its cords running into a supply set beneath a globe- -one not of Equestria, but the Gloame- -and a pot with an anemic sprig of poison joke beneath an infrared light. “What is all this stuff?”

“Parts for my job,” said Five. “Try not to contact anything that will break. Or explode. Or bite.”

Five pulled spread her wings and flapped hard, lifting the box of electronics that she was carrying to the area where power cells were stored, directly above the flammables/milk cabinet.

“Look at all this junk,” said Rainbow Dash, admiring a still-living severed pony arm under a bell jar and a slowly levitating black crystal.

“It’s not junk,” said Five, turning around. “Much of it is- -”

Her blood ran cold when she realized what Rainbow Dash was staring at: a pair of earth pony skulls, still sealed in transparent tubes, one showing the lesions of bone cancer and the other bashed in on one side. Five held her breath, realizing her mistake: she should never have brought Rainbow Dash into this room, not with those two artifacts present.

“Creepy,” said Rainbow Dash, moving to the next artifact. Five let out a long breath. Rainbow Dash seemed to have no idea how close she had just come to two of her beloved friends, or the significance of those skulls. “I don’t like skulls,” she said. “But those two…” she turned back to them. “I don’t know…somehow they feel really familiar…”

“Most earth pony skulls look similar,” said Five, feining calmness even though she was on the verge of panic. “Actually, somewhere around here, I possess the skull of a pygmy horse...”

“No way!” said Rainbow Dash, looking around the room excitedly. “Twilight always said that those were totally fake!”

“Oh, they are. But I still have it.”

Rainbow Dash looked confused, but then her eyes were caught by a golden glint. With a small rainbow contrail, she crossed the room, rattling the armor dangling from the ceiling and causing some of the living vines to retract in annoyance. “Sweet Celestia!” she said, picking up the pair of golden objects and placing them on her body. “These look just like the real thing!”

Five looked up and saw that Rainbow Dash had been drawn to a crown and a necklace, both of them made of something resembling gold, both with a single violet crystal set within them.

“No,” said Five, making her way over a pile of tiles taken from Canterlot Castle toward her desk in the back. “Those are the real thing.”

“No way,” said Rainbow Dash, suddenly appearing nervous, as if she had insulted the crown’s original user by putting it on. “They can’t be…are you telling me you stole Celestia’s crown?”

“And necklace. But now. It was not me, but rather my great grandmother, Second. There are currently three pieces of cerorite not in the possession of Thebe. Those are two of them. Apparently, Second decided that after Celestia’s death it was too dangerous for them to remain free. Try as I might, I cannot get them out of there.”

Rainbow Dash took off the crown and looked at it, nostalgia crossing her face. “You know, she really was a beautiful pony.”

“Yes, if you ignore the Exmoori genocide and the several centuries of brutal and totalitarian ruling.”

“The what?”

“Never mind. Put them back, please, and come down here.”

Rainbow Dash set the crown and necklace back in their place- -on an inactive equidroid husk being used as a mannequin- -and descended.

“Hey,” she said as she stepped over the well-organized mess so uncharacteristic of a guardian of Order. “Can I ask you something?”

“No, I do not have Luna’s.”

“Not that. Back at the…back there…”

“What?” asked Five, rummaging through a pail of tools, trying to find a pair of pliers that were not channel locks.

“When that guy beat you up with the hammer…you got pretty messed up.”

“You would not believe how much head trauma like that hurts,” said Five, shivering slightly at the thought of it. “Not as bad as burning, of course, but not fun.”

“But then there was that light, and those sparks, and you…you healed! Which was itself pretty awesome.”

Five dropped a wrench that had been misclassified as a spanner on her desk and turned around, facing Rainbow Dash. “None of these things are questions, Ms. Dash. If you are lonely and need conversation, see Gell, not me.”

“You used magic,” said Rainbow Dash, frowning.

“Yes, I did,” said Five. That was in its own way a question, but to her, it was obvious. She had been using magic since the instant she was born; it was not unusual for her.

“But you’re not a unicorn!”

Five sighed, and then motioned for Rainbow Dash to approach her. For some reason, the Pegasus insisted on staying at least six feet away at all times, perhaps without even being conscious of it.

“Run your hoof through my mane.”

Rainbow Dash, who had been approaching, suddenly backed up. “Eew, no,” she said. “First the demon, and now you?”

“It is not a sexual thing,” snapped Five, somewhat disgusted. “Just do it.”

Rainbow Dash released an annoyed whine, and Five lowered her head. She felt the hoof passing through her low-cut blue mane, softly at first, and then much harder as Rainbow Dash felt the pony protrusions along the cusp of her skull and cervical vertebrae.

“What the hay?” said Rainbow Dash, grabbing the horns tightly enough for it to be uncomfortable for Five. “You have- -” A glint of realization passed through her eyes. “I remember! Just like he had…that D27 guy!”

“Yes,” said Five, hating that name and the monster that bore it. She swiped away Rainbow Dash’s hoof. “The principle is the same. My power is a fragment of his.”

“So you’re…what, an alicorn?”

“No,” said Five, shivering at the thought. “Nor am I a unicorn. My abilities are far more narrow.”

“But you, I mean, I saw you heal yourself from like, twenty hammer hits!”

“It was eight. And yes, I can do that.” Five sighed, and stopped what she was doing completely. For some reason, she felt a strong desire to tell another pony, to have someopony understand her pain. “It is, unfortunately, my curse.”

“Curse? But it’s- -well, pretty much a superpower.”

“I have tried so many things,” said Five. “Burning, shooting, complete exsanguination, poison with toxins you could hardly imagine. I have been exposed to one hundred times the lethal dose of radiation for a pony, to explosive blasts. I have sought out the most vicious tumors and xenographed them into myself. I once even sawed off my own head. The same conclusion has always been reached.”

“Wh- -what is that?” said Rainbow Dash, suddenly rather pale.

“That this body will not allow me to die.”

“Well isn’t that- -but…why would you want to die?”

Five felt herself chuckle. “Such simplistic response to what I am telling you. So binary. To assume that life and death are what concern me…death is always bad, but sometimes less so.” She looked into Rainbow Dash’s eyes. “I want to live. More than anything, I want to live. But I would also give anything to be allowed to die on my own terms.” She turned back to her desk, and decided that with her gauntlets, she probably would not need pliers anyway. “Not that you could understand. But, thank you.”

“For what?”

“For listening.” Five drew a small horizontal circle in the air with her hoof. “Now turn around and spread your wings.”

“My…my what?”

“Wing blades. Are you wearing any?”

“No…”

“Then tell me, how did you cut those ponies?”

Rainbow Dash looked confused, but then looked down at her wings. “I don’t…I don’t know.”

“Exactly. Neither do I. Did the Wonderbolts engage you in any surgical upgrades?”

“Surgical what? Like, to my- -”

“Eew. No.” Five turned Rainbow Dash around forcibly, plunging her metal-coated hooves into the Peguas’s down.

“Nooo!” cried Rainbow Dash, trying to close her wings. “My down! This is- -ooooh, that tickles!”

“Relax, I’m a doctor,” said Five.

“Really?”

“No, of course not. That was a joke.”

“You’re basically molesting me, you know that, right?”

“No I’m not. Hold still.”

Five spread Rainbow Dash’s feathers, and suddenly saw a nick appear in her gauntlet. She moved much more slowly and carefully, and suddenly spied a row of unique feathers amongst the soft blue fluff. They were small, short, and appeared to be made of some kind of golden metal.

Carefully, Five clamped a gripping attachment of her gauntlet against one of the feathers and, with a swift motion, yanked it out.

“EEEP!” cried Rainbow Dash, suddenly jumping into the air. “What the hay!” she cried. “You just pulled one!”

Five held up the feather, and Rainbow Dash’s agitation suddenly vanished, descending from the air as they both stared at the small golden feather. It was about two inches long, small enough to be hidden among the other feathers, and definitely made of metal. Unlike a normal feather, it had two roots, and was geometrically shaped. Five turned it over in her claw, and noted that it was impossibly rigid for its thickness, which was nearly as flat as a sheet of tissue paper. The metal appeared- -but the fact that it had been growing out of Rainbow Dash’s wing- -to be of organic origin, but it was certainly metal of some kind.

“What in the wide world of Equestria is that?” whispered Rainbow Dash.

“For once, I have no idea,” said Five, herself feeling the volume of her voice decrease in awe. “But you have a lot of them.”

Rainbow Dash spread her wing, and gasped when she saw the glint of the golden feathers from within her down. “Sweet lusty Luna! I do!”

Five had never heard that expression, but considering her relation to Luna, found it distasteful.

“So…” she said. “Be really careful when you preen.” She picked up a piece of scrap pipe with her hand-like wing and slid the feather across it, cutting it cleanly in half. “Oop. Yeah. Mind your tongue.”

“Oh…okay…” said Rainbow Dash, lowering her wings and once again looking dejected. Five was getting tired of this.

“What is it now? I just informed you that you have some kind of biological metal growing out of you. A new weapon. This is a happy thing.”

“Well…it’s just that…” she looked up Five. “Okay. I’m going to tell you this….” She took a deep breath. “It means…” she blushed, “it means that my special somepony- -when I find him- -can’t ever preen me.” She grimaced, as if she were expecting to get hit.

“Oh,” said Five, suddenly feeling profoundly uncomfortable. “Um…yes, that is…um…true…”

“Well, it’s just that, for a Pegasus…no. Never mind. You would not understand.”

“No, I would not. You must figure that sort of problem out on your own, as I am of little help. However, I can help with the feather. I am going to run some tests, as this interests me. Until then, you are free to wander the Pocket. Just do not break anything- -and if you see a green pony with a antler-horn, tell him to stop sealing our cheese.”

“Okay…” said Rainbow Dash. Five turned back to her desk and began pulling out supplies, and she heard Rainbow Dash flutter off toward the door after several seconds.

As Rainbow Dash left, Philomena descended from the ceiling, landing on a large perch that had been set aside for her. Five looked up at the bird, then down at the feather.

“What business does she have speaking to me of such things?” she said. “As though I would know about ‘special-someponies’. That a parthogen even could.”

Philomena released a low chirp.

“She is not my friend. She never can be. Her only value to me is her skull, and with it her power.” Five glanced over her shoulder at the skinless skulls of Pinkie Pie and Applejack. “I can only ever be alone, because I was dead the instant I was born. Just a cursed shell.” She picked up the feather, and slit her throat with it. She watched as the blood poured onto the table, and felt the familiar sensation of drowning and the metal taste of blood- -and then felt the sparks of Order restoring her body, the wound closing, not even leaving a scar.

She coughed out the blood from her lungs, and looked at the bloody feather. “Hmm. Perhaps I can make a knife out of it.”

Rainbow Dash found that she had become incredibly lost, and that made her angry. This place she was in, this “Pocket”, made no logical sense. There were staircases that were too long, or not long enough, or that would lead to the same floor they had come from, and hallways that seemed to backtrack onto their own position. The architecture changed as well. Not all of it was as gaudy and old fashioned as the front part; much of it was diverse and strange to the point of being random, as though it had been constructed by a madpony- -which, for all Rainbow Dash knew, it had.

This inevitably led to a kind of panic. The way the area felt, how lifeless and yet so lively the building itself appeared, caused her to become increasingly frightened. She had started by running, and then by flying through the wide, Gell-sized halls, panting heavily. There was no way out; every window she found was fake, and every door she encounter was either locked or led to rooms filled wither with bunches of equipment or plants or things she couldn’t even recognize. One was even filled with spiders, perhaps unintentionally, and another filled with racks of bones and helmets, and one with a canoe in a pile of sand. All of it was unnerving to the point of being terrifying.

Then, when she finally felt like she was going to scream, she turned a corner and ran into something incredibly hard. The force knocked the wind out of her and sent her flying backward, splaying her limbs out along the ground. At first, she thought that she had struck a wall- -having a wall just behind a corner would not be out of the nature of the Pocket’s mad architecture- -but when her vision cleared, Rainbow Dash found herself looking up at the blood-stained visage of a pink demon.

Gell looked down at Rainbow Dash, her horizontal pupils widening, and then directing themselves at the raw strip of meat sticking out of the side of her mouth, part of a pure-white bone sticking out. She slurped it into her mouth and crouched it down quickly, but Rainbow Dash had already seen it.

“Hey,” she said, looking down. “Let me guess. Five told you to look around, didn’t she, eh?”

“Yes, but this place is crazy!”

“I know. Three was a bit…eccentric. Don’t get me long, I loved her, but she was batty. Unbelievable in bed though.”

Gell reached down and helped Rainbow Dash stand up. Rainbow Dash found herself staring at Gell’s coat, realizing how similar in color it was to Pinkie Pie’s.

“Oh,” said Gell. “The blood.”

Rainbow Dash had not realized it consciously, but Gell was drenched in blood.

“Yeah. If this was Nightmare Night, you would win the costume contest for sure.”

Gell laughed deeply and slapped Rainbow Dash on the shoulder, nearly crushing her. “I would, wouldn’t I? Except this is real. I just butchered a pony. Cut him up, ate half of him.”

Rainbow Dash shivered. The idea itself was terrible, but what made it worse was that she was now having a conversation with the pony who had done the butchering. Monsters did eat ponies, that was a fact of life; but ponies- -even demon ponies- -eating ponies was disturbing on a whole different level.

“I know, I know,” sighed Gell. “But I’m on my way to the showers so…” Her demon eye suddenly lit up. “Oh! I know! We should take a shower together!”

“What? Why- -why would we do that?”

“It would be sweet. And look at you. Blood on your wings, and you smell like horse sweat.”

“Um, no, I don’t think- -hey!” Rainbow Dash felt herself being picked up and was placed on Gell’s back.

“Come on, stinky,” she said, starting to walk forward. Rainbow Dash suddenly started slipping on the black segmented armor that covered Gell’s back, but grabbed onto it just in time to stop herself form falling off. She suddenly had an idea of what Spike must have felt like always riding on Twilight’s back- -it was actually pretty nice. Still, she did not like the idea of bathing with another mare.

She was carried down the hall a little bit farther, to an area that she had somehow not been to before- -one with white-painted brick walls and a synthetic tile floor. The lights there were harsh, but widely spaced.

Gell lifted her head and poked Rainbow Dash with one of her long, curving horns. “Off,” she said.

Rainbow Dash slid off. As she did, she heard a grinding sound going past her, and saw Five struggling to push a large box with her head down the hall.

“Taking a shower, I see,” grunted Five, pushing the box past them. “Don’t drop the soap.”

“Ha ha,” called Gell. “Very funny!” she turned her attention toward Rainbow Dash. “But seriously,” she said. “As gloriously stunning a she-stud as you are, you are a mare. So I give you my word, with Satin as my witness, that I won’t ever make a move on you without your permission. Got that?”

“Um…sure,” said Rainbow Dash, feeling herself blush. She did not find Gell attractive at all, but the attention felt nice, at least.

“Now come on,” said Gell, pushing Rainbow Dash through an opening that was not quite a door.

Rainbow Dash, upon entering, suddenly realized what Gell had meant. The bathroom was not small, like hers, but rather large, with multiple shower heads on both sides, much like the showers that the Wonderbolts had used. That sort of group shower was something that Rainbow Dash was actually used to; for some reason, she had imagined her and Gell in a cramped tub lathering each other.

She shook her head, and entered the room. The tiling was impressive, even to her. The floor consisted of almost random tiles of every size and color that all seemed to mesh into a unified shape, and the walls and ceiling were done in an exceedingly complex mosaic. It was a cool bathroom- -and Rainbow Dash decided that a shower would do her some good.

“Here,” said Gell, tossing Rainbow Dash a bar of soap on a neck-ring. Rainbow Dash caught it in her mouth, and slid it over her neck. Gell then pointed at the right side of the room. “You take that side. Now, a basic rule here. Keep your eyes in that direction. I’m going to be taking my clothing off, so try not to look at me.

“Um…” said Rainbow Dash, wondering why Gell had asked to bathe together in the first place, “okay…” Still confused, she faced the wall, and heard the characteristic sounds of straps being undone and metal clanking as Gell removed her armor. In order to resist the urge to look over her shoulder, Rainbow Dash turned the complicated faucet, turning on the water. It came out immediately warm.

“This is a nice shower,” she said, adjusting the temperature and relishing the feeling of the steaming water flowing through her feathers and mane.

“I know,” said Gell. “Three had a whole mosaic phase.” Rainbow Dash heard the other shower turn on. “But, weirdly, there was no water in the place back then. Five did that…she’s got some kind of recycling pump rigged up somewhere.”

“Neat,” said Rainbow Dash, turning her head just slightly.

“Hey!” said Gell, sharply.

“Sorry,” said Rainbow Dash, distantly aware that for Gell to have caught that, she must been watching rather closely. “But…you know, we are ponies. We’re naked all the time.”

“No, you are a pony. I am a demon.”

“But I’ve met demons. I never once saw one wearing clothes.”

“Because you probably never saw a female. We don’t usually come up here unless Satin really wants to punish the world, or if we get summoned. Basic cultural lesson, though: modesty for female demons is expected.”

“Why?”

“It should be obvious, shouldn’t it? Because our stallions are not allowed to wear clothes. I don’t know how the tradition started, but I guess we started wearing our clothes to differentiate ourselves from them. That eventually morphed into modesty, or something like that.”

“So…being naked is unpleasant for you?”

“In your culture, it would be like having a stallion wear a frilly dress. Or you wear a dress.”

“I’ve worn dressed before,” protested Rainbow Dash, lathering her hair. She was well trained to take quick showers, but the warm water helped to calm her, as if it were washing away her anger and sorrow. That, and Gell was actually far less abrasive than Five to talk to. “My friend Rarity used to make them…”

“No way!” said Gell, so loudly that it caused Rainbow Dash to jump. “You actually wore a Rarity?! Hold on…I need to calm down for a moment…just imagining you in one of those dresses is…I’m sorry. I was intending to do this with you…I guess as a way to show allegiance. It isn’t supposed to be sexual.”

“You really are a lespony, aren’t you?”

“Eh, not really. I like stallions too- -but they don’t survive very long. Overwhelming desire to violently remove their testicles and all.”

“So that’s your…” Rainbow Dash once again shivered, and felt an urge to look over her shoulder. She had only partially seen Gell’s cutie mark beneath her armor, and was aware that it was a menacing, demonic meat tenderizer.

“Special talent, yeah. Demons don’t get pretty ones like you do.”

“If it’s who you are…but, being honest here, the eating ponies thing is really disturbing.”

“I have to eat something.”

“What about hay? Or bread? Cookies?”

“Will make me very, very sick. I can have a piece of cake, but I get…drunk. I can only eat meat.”

“It’s just…not right, though.”

“I understand, but that’s only because you ponies are so backward.”

“What?”

“Well, when you eat meat, you always choose it based on sentience. Chickens or turkeys or the like are okay, because they are dumb. Dogs and cats are bad, ponies are forbidden. That’s backward.”

“Ponies don’t eat meat!” cried Rainbow Dash, nearly vomiting at the thought of slaughtering a poor, helpless animal. Such a thing was horrible to her; to a pony like Fluttershy, having to know that such a thing was perpetrated by ponies would be a fate worse than death.

“Not in your time,” grumbled Gell. “We introduced it with the occupation. Ponies eat it now, though, but backward. Demons do it correctly: the most sentient meat is best. Pony is best, then cows and sheep, dogs, cats, and so on. Turkey and chicken are bad meat.”

“What about demon?”

“No,” said Gell, harshly. “Demon meat must never be eaten!”

“Isn’t that a bit hypocritical?”

“No. You misunderstand. That honor is only reserved for Satin herself. To consume our flesh it to challenge our god- -and to face her divine and everlasting wrath.”

“That’s weird,” said Rainbow Dash.

“Perhaps, but you mortals are just as strange to us.”

“Is it true?” asked Rainbow Dash, suddenly.

“Is what true?”

“That you are immortal? That you live forever?”

“No. Well…no. I will die in time, when Satin deems fit to consume me, body and soul. But I am old. Very old.”

“How old?”

“I don’t remember. Five hundred something.”

“So you remember…back then. When I was young.”

“You still are young,” corrected Gell. “But yes, vaguely. I even recall reading about your death.”

“Wow,” said Rainbow Dash, somewhat impressed with herself. “I did not know I was that important. Can’t believe I got into the papers in Tartarus.”

“I was not in Tartarus at the time. I was at Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns.”

“But…you’re not a unicorn.”

“Not as a student. Think things through, Dashie. Anhelios- -you’re Anhelios- -summoned me. I was so young back then. I still had hair.”

Rainbow Dash could hear it in the tone of her voice. “You were her friend.”

“My best friend,” said Gell. “I loved her. More than anything in this world. And then she left me…”

“She died,” whispered Rainbow Dash.

“She had to. That’s the way it works with them.”

“I don’t understand,” said Rainbow Dash. “What do you mean? You mean us mortals?”

“No. I mean Anhelios.” Rainbow Dash felt demonic eye staring at the back of her neck. “She…she didn’t tell you, did she?”

“Tell me what?”

“Of course she wouldn’t. She sees it as unimportant, but it kind of is.”

“What is it?” demanded Rainbow Dash, suddenly feeling that knowing was of crucial importance.

“The amount of Order in her body is finite. It never runs out, but it cannot be divided, not ever. Only one can ever exist at a time.”

“You mean- -”

“The mother gets pregnant only once, and dies giving birth.”

Rainbow Dash was silent, not knowing what to say.

“Rainbow Dash,” said Gell. “Don’t hate Five.”

“It’s kind of hard not to.”

“I know, because she is trying.”

“She’s not doing a very good job.”

“No. She is trying to make you hate her.”

“Why? Why would she do that?”

“Because the process went wrong with her. For the first four, there was a system. They learn and grow far faster than normal ponies, but there were always others to help them. The chiropterans nearly worshiped them, and the priests would raise them. Only in their teen years would I appear, and offer my contract to them.”

“But something happened.”

“Yes. In the time of Four, things changed. The chiropterans changed, moved on. They forgot the old ways, and the priests died out. So she was alone. Born alone.”

“Wait,” said Rainbow Dash, turning off her water, suddenly angry. “So they just left a foal to fend for herself?!”

“She was not a foal. In a matter of days she would have been the equivalent of a toddler, with the mind of an adult, but…that thing inside her carried memories, all the way back from Two. She was fully functional, but alone and it changed her.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Psychological imprinting or some such. I eventually realized it and helped her, but it was too late. Her mind was broken. The way she thinks, it’s not like you do. Her mind is like a machine, clicking out outcomes from stimuli. She is obsessive, apathetic, and dangerous.”

“Why are you telling me this?”

“Because she won’t. Because maybe I feel guilty for what happened, for raising her this way. I don’t know.” Gell switched off her own water. She sighed. “Wow, this got dark. You can turn around now.”

Rainbow Dash did, as if ordered, and as she did realized that Gell had not put her armor back on yet. She found herself staring at a massive, soaking, pink-coated demon who was staring down at her.

“What do you think?” she said, smiling softly. “How do I look?”

Rainbow Dash craned around and looked at Gell’s cutie mark, confirming that it was, in fact, a hammer. She also saw Gell’s tail.

Before she could stop herself, she blurted out the obvious. “You have a flappy little tail,” she said, in all seriousness.

Gell threw a towel into Rainbow Dash’s face, but it was apparent that she was smiling broadly. “Well, we can’t all have a pretty rainbow one, can we? Alright, enough of the free show! Out!”

She waved her cloven hooves at Rainbow Dash, and the latter laughed as Gell rolled a towel into a whip and snapped it at her rear. “Out! Let me get my armor back on, I’ll take you to the kitchen!”

Rainbow Dash jumped out into the hallway, taking refuge around the corner and finishing drying herself off. She felt better, even if the conversation had turned depressing, because she had somepony to talk to, perhaps even a friend, if a demon even really had the ability for such things.

Still, within her, a certain vision was nagging her. The idea of a young pony born by definition without family, friends, or anypony at all, and of the mind that had ossified into that style. It explained a lot, really, and was sad, and in a way terrifying, to know that such a creature could exist, or had been forced by circumstances to exist. At least Rainbow Dash had once had friends, even if they were all gone now. By the way Gell talked, it seemed like Five never had. The best parts of life, of laughing with others, going on adventures, having sompeony to talk to or be there when she needed it- -those had been scooped out of Five before she had even been two months old, leaving an unfortunate husk behind. Five could never understand what Rainbow Dash had lost, but Rainbow Dash could understand what Five had never experienced, and that frame of mind made her seem more pathetic than psychotic.

Five was cruel and strange, but Rainbow Dash knew that it might just be possible for them to manage to tolerate each other.

Five sat amongst the machines, the feather before her. Whatever it was made of was beyond her knowledge. Spectrometry indicated that it was literally solid gold, but it did not behave like gold. It was harder and stronger than any gold she had ever encountered, save perhaps the enchanted alloy that made up Celestia’s royal jewelry.

She was making no progress, so she had resorted to just staring at it, wondering if the thought would come to her. That was not likely, though. She was not an especially creative pony. If she were able to sleep, perhaps she would have dreamed the solution, but nopony in her bloodline since Nightwatcher had been able to reach such peace, not even Cavern Melody after she had lost her soul.

Five turned to Philomena, who was sleeping restlessly on her perch.

“Lucky,” said Five, swiveling on her chair, slowly revolving. “I never get to be unconscious. Awake for every minute, ever second aware. It’s so long…”

She suddenly stopped herself and looked out into the room. Gell and Rainbow Dash were using most of the nuclear reactor’s power to heat their water, so Five had turned out most of the lights. For some reason, though, the shadows seemed to be growing far more intense than usual.

Then she knew why, and smiled even though she was not happy.

“What do you want?” she said.

The shadows against the shelving racks seemed to condense, and to grow physical form, until something stepped out. Not from the shadows, but within the shadows. Something with bright green eyes.

“You already know,” said the shadow.

“No, I don’t,” said Five.

“Yes, you do, because you are me. You can feel it too.”

“I feel nothing.”

“Another point,” said the glowing-eyed shadow. “Like the one that formed you. Paths converging. Can’t you feel it?”

“No.”

“You will, in time.”

“Then why don’t you do something?” The eyes stared back, their blank vertical pupils more amused than confused, but there was no response. “You know you can. You can have this body if you want it. I am not using it for anything worthwhile anyway.”

The shadow shook her head. “No,” she said. “I have lived my life, and countless more. This one is yours, not mine.”

“You call this life?!” shouted Five, nearly waking Philomena. “A finite existence where I do nothing but wait to die? What point is there? You are immortal! When Six is born, you will pass to her, and to the rest of them! Why should I have to exist when you can?”

“Your path is chosen, and was chosen, long before you. You cannot escape it.”

“But I can try.”

“You can. But is that a worthwhile use of your time?”

“There is nothing else I would rather use it for.”

“So be it. But for now, I have no reason to interfere, save to warn you, and to lend you the use of my power, even if it is for such…trivial things. Tell me, though.” She paced across the room, her form obscured by the darkness Five knew was only perceived. “This machine you are building. Will it work?”

“I don’t know. I still need more parts, but I am working on it.”

“Fluttershy, Twilight Sparkle, Rarity. You still require three…and are you sure that Rainbow Dash will be compatible, even though she lives?”

“If she is not, I will kill her and take her skull,” said Five calmly. “Then she will be as compatible as the others.”

“What you are trying to do is unholy.”

“Says the Queen of the Necromancers.”

“I do not say that with judgement, as I cannot comprehend the morality of your age, or the ages subsequent. But know what you are building.”

“I do.”

The shadow smiled. “Then you now have my reason.”

“What?”

“I could never build such a device. I do not know how. So you must live now, to finish it. To build a machine that can murder Thebe herself.”

“No!” said Five, standing, frightening Philomena into awakens. As the Phoenix burned, the shadows were momentarily illuminated, and Five saw the skeletal three-horned shape within the shadows, if just for a moment, before they collapsed into the true shadows of the room.

Philomena squawked, angry at being awakened so abruptly, and sat back in her chair.

“It is okay, sister,” she said. “I apologize for waking you. I had one of the hallucinations again.” Five extended her hoof, and Philomena landed on it. She stroked the bird’s head with her other metal claw, but momentarily looked down at her own cutie mark, and the stain that surrounded it. Once again, her offer had been refused, and once again, she would continue onward.

Chapter 22: Failed Attempts

View Online

“Okay, I got it,” gasped Sweetie Belle, nearly collapsing after pushing the heavy microwave oven up the clubhouse ramp. “But my mom’s gonna notice that it’s gone pretty quick, so I need to put it back pretty quick.”

“Here,” said Scootaloo, tossing Sweetie Belle a screwdriver. She checked her hastily drawn notes. “Take off the back, and connect the wires to the ‘magnetron’- -it should be square, with a little dingus on top of it.”

“Everything has a dingus on it!” whined Sweetie Belle.

“Just do it!” shouted Scootaloo suddenly, causing Sweetie Belle and Applejack to jump.

“Hey now,” said Applebloom, standing up from the pile of books and the various household jars around her containing various potions, many already linked by wires to the device they were assembling. “Don’t talk to her like that!”

“I’m…I’m sorry,” said Scootaloo, rubbing her hoof over her eyes. “I…I didn’t mean to.”

“How long has it been since you slept?”

“I can’t sleep,” said Scootaloo. “Every time I do, she- -she’s there.”

“That’s not a bad thing,” quipped Sweetie Belle, innocently.

“Until I wake up,” muttered Scootaloo. She turned her attention toward Applebloom. “How is it going with the formulas?”

“Well…” said Applebloom. “I get some of it, but honestly, I can’t make heads or tails of most of it. I mean, I know algebra, but this ‘linear algebra’ stuff ain’t at all like it- -and half is in some other language!”

“Then we just substitute values,” said Scootaloo. “What about the anchor?”

They three of them turned toward a large, rusted anchor that was weighting down one corner of the clubhouse, most of it wrapped in multicolored wire pulled from any junk appliance they could get their hoof on. Applebloom took out a hoof-drawn piece of paper covered in her own notes. “It didn’t look like that in Twilight’s book,” she said. “It was…small. Some kind of crystal, I think.”

“Twilight,” muttered Scootaloo, recognizing the name of the only pony taking Rainbow Dash’s death as hard as she was. Thinking about them both brought the pain back, though, and she went back to drawing the runes on the floor around the object in the center- -a circle made from wood nailed together and wrapped in tinfoil, connected to the parts of a radio and a television set.

“Are you sure this will work?” said Applebloom. At first, she had been treating it like a game, just another way to earn their cutie marks- -except that they had earned them years ago. Then she had realized Scootaloo’s obsession with the device, with the impossible plan, and now actually believed that it might possibly work.

“It has to,” said Scootaloo. She put down the set of potions she was using to draw the occult symbols, and watched as some of them ate their way into the wood. She had already tried a similar spell at home, but it had failed, having burned a hole in her floor and raised something resembling a clawed hummingbird from Tartarus. She had poured through the calculations, and thought she knew what was wrong.

“Do you have them?” she asked Sweetie Belle.

Sweetie Belle nodded, and handed Scootaloo a velvet jewelry box. Scootaloo opened it and found three black diamonds within- -the only stones, according to the writings, that could withstand the pressure. She pulled them out and lowered her visor over her soot and oil-covered face, and welded brackets over them, forcing them onto the metal superstructure of the portal eye.

“Careful with those!” cried Sweetie Belle. “If my sister finds out I took them, she’ll…I don’t even know what she’ll do, but it won’t be pretty!”

Scootaloo stepped back, checking to make sure that they were well attached. They were crooked, but she doubted that they needed to be very straight. They would be vaporized almost instantly when the device activated.

“Right,” she said, smiling. She could almost feel it- -she knew it would work this time. She stepped back and picked up a device she had constructed earlier, a colander with a hole cut into it and hundreds of wires and a pair of vacuum tubes attached to it. “Sweetie Belle?”

“Are you absolutely sure about this?” she asked. “I mean, the last time- -”

“This won’t be like the last time,” said Scootaloo, trying to stay calm. She stepped forward and put the colander on Sweetie Belle’s head, attaching the wires and chin strap and finally putting a large alligator clip on her horn.

“Ow! Tight!” she said, shifting on her legs as though she needed to use the bathroom.

“You can’t do that to her horn,” said Applebloom, folding her books and notes neatly and stepping over her potions. “Those things are sensitive!”

“No, no,” said Sweetie Belle, pausing. “It’s actually starting to…feel really good…”

“The potions,” said Scootaloo, hurriedly. “Hurry up!”

“I’m going as fast as I can,” said Applebloom, setting up the remaining potions and pouring them into the tubing system for their distribution, just as all the books suggested. She was perhaps the only one that realized what they were actually trying to do, and the consequences of what would happen if it actually worked- -and how that would only be half of Scootaloo’s plan.

“This will work,” said Scootaloo, picking up the controls, made mostly out of spare- -or stolen- -toy electronics. “It has to. It will work.”

“You’re making me nervous,” said Sweetie Belle.

“Don’t be. We’re going to bring her back.” She slammed the primary arming switch into place. The electronics and appliances began to hum to life, some of them whirring and beeping, and others moving in places where the motors had not been disconnected. Scootaloo had planned this for so many months, and seen this exact so many times in her head. She engaged the sequence, just as her test had shown.

“Sweetie Belle!” she called over the sound of the machines. “NOW!”

Sweetie Bell closed her eyes, and focused her magic into the portal, just as she had practiced. She did it just like she had been taught- -her mind focusing on three individual points, forming a triangle. It manifested in the center of the misshapen ring they had constructed, and the runes below seemed to vibrate.

Then, suddenly, a power crystal system burst into flames. Applebloom, who was standing near it, cried out and jumped back from the flames.

Scootaloo was not looking at the power core, though. She was focused firmly on portal, searching the static and bursts of light for exactly what Rainbow Dash had described to her- -endless forests of dark, fungoid trees, and a black sky that streaked with red lightning- -the last place where the only friend that could truly help Rainbow Dash hiding.

It never came. There was a sudden flash of light, and the portal exploded, sending splinters of wood and fragments of nails across the room, and throwing the Cutie Mark Crusaders backward. Scootaloo was momentarily rendered blind and deaf, but as she came too through the ringing and optical distortions, she was aware of several loud hisses, and saw Applebloom- -whose front leg had been burned- -putting out the flames with a fire extinguisher.

“What…it didn’t…”

Applebloom seemed to be angrily mouthing words, but Scootaloo could not hear them, at least not at first. Then she heard them distantly, as though she were underwater, and saw where Appebloom was pointing frantically.

“Sweetie Belle! Help Sweetie Belle!” she was saying.

Scootaloo looked over to the other side of the room, and saw Sweetie Belle lying on the floor- -perfectly still. Her legs were splayed out, and the makeshift helmet she had been wearing was smoldering. At that instant, Scootaloo froze- -and her mind saw something else entirely. She saw the sky filled with rainbows, a single streak powering forward at impossible speed, the universe itself seeming to bend around the almost invisible pony at the front of it. She saw the sudden burst of light, and the machinery tearing apart, flaming pieces of metal flying in all directions from the fireball. She heard the deafening thud as Rainbow Dash had been atomized, and she heard herself screaming.

In reality, she was silent, unable to move, her mouth hanging open, looking at Sweetie Belle, trying to force her mind to stop thinking the worst but finding herself unable to stop it. On the other side of her, Applebloom threw down the fire extinguisher and moved to their friend.

“Sweetie Belle!” she said, picking up her friend. “Sweetie Belle, wake up!”

Applebloom tore off the helmet and alligator clip, and though her horn was charred and smoking, Sweetie Belle’s eyes were open- -and she smiled. “Oh silly Button Mash,” she said. “That isn’t my horn…”

“What in tarnation?” said a different voice, from the edge door. Scootaloo turned to see Applejack and Big Macintosh- -as well as, oddly enough, as sheep. “What happened here- -Applebloom, you’re hurt!”

“It’s just a little singe,” said Applebloom, rubbing the spot on her arm and wincing.

“Just a singe? Sugarcube, that’s a second dehgree burn!”

“I’m fine.”

“Nope,” said Big Mac, picking her up and putting her over his back.

“Get her to Granny Smith,” said Applejack. “And Sweetie Behlle- -”

“Ahl help her,” said the sheep, who helped Sweetie Belle to her feet and stabilized her. Scootaloo was momentarily shocked- -she had forgotten that sheep could talk.

As they were taken out, Applejack approached Scootaloo. “What is ahl this?” she demanded, staring at the charred and smoldering wreckage of the portal. “What in the wide world of Equestria were yah tryin to do?!”

“It didn’t work,” said Scootaloo, blankly, falling back onto her flank. She had though- -known- -that it would, that she would be able to get Rainbow Dash back, to save her- -but the machine had failed. Of course it had failed, she thought- -it was cobbled together from scrap and magic on a level that even Twilight could not perform. Scootaloo somehow did not know how she would ever believe something built by a trio of teenagers would be able to do what it needed to anyway.

She felt the hot sensation in her nose that meant the tears were coming, and she covered her face so that Applejack would not see- -and began to cry.

Applejack, who had formerly been angry and confused, was taken aback by the sudden change in Scootaloo’s attitude. “What- -oh, sugarcube…” she sat down next to Scootaloo and put her foreleg around the small, flightless filly. Scootaloo buried her face in Applejack’s chest.

“It- -was supposed to- -work!” she sobbed. “It had - -to- -work!”

“Cahlm down,” said Applejack. “Just take ah minute- -and then start from the top, alraght?”

Scootaloo sobbed for a moment until she could control the weeping. She had found from experience that all she needed to do was to aboslutly refuse to think about Rainbow Dash- -but that was nearly impossible. A flash of color, the shadow of a Pegasus overhead- -all of it would send her into uncontrollable crying. Then the memories would come, and the fight to regain control would start all over again.

Eventually, though, she slowed down, and stood up, wiping her swollen eyes. “We were trying to…no. I was trying to build a portal. A portal to the Gloame.”

“The Gloame?” said Applejack, her eyes narrowing. “Why in the name of Celestia would yah want to go there?”

“Because he’s there,” said Scootaloo.

“Who?”

“D27.”

Applejack distantly recalled the name, and her eyes widened as the vision of a blue, hairless pony with triangle-pupiled eyes and a row of lumpy spikes running across the top of his head and neck came to mind. “D27…nopony’s seen it in years. We just assumed that ahfter the battle with Nil, it…” She did not finish the sentence. Applejack herself had not been a fan of the creature, but she had known that her sister and her friends had, for some reason, become at least somewhat close to it, so she did not tell Scootaloo that it was generally assumed that D27 had died shortly after the battle nearly five years earlier.

“No,” said Scootaloo, shaking her head. “He wouldn’t do that- -he just woudn’t! He just went…back home…”

“Ahm still confused,” said Applejack. “I know yah thought it was your friend and all, but doin all this- -”

Scootaloo quickly crossed over to the messy and charred pile of books and nots and rummaged through. After a moment, she drew out a poorly stapled mass of white paper and handed it to Appeljack.

Applejack looked at the paper. “Journal of Advances in Magic,” she read. “Title: The Potential for Resurrection of Sentient Life through Application of Entropy-Reversing Magic, Proposed Theory and Case Study. By Anhelios and Holy Armament.” Applejack looked up. “Where did yah get this?”

“Twilight had it,” admitted Scootaloo.

“Of course she did,” muttered Applejack. She understood what they had been doing, though, even if the magic involved was beyond her. “So y’all were trahyin to summon D27 so that he could use that ‘Order’ magic stuff to bring back…bring back Rainbow Dash?”

Scootaloo nodded, and Applejack saw the tears coming back. “I tried. I tried to help her but…” She suddenly lashed out, kicking over the books and spilling numerous potions. “I failed!”

“Hey hey!” said Applejack, grabbing Scootaloo’s hoof before she could throw a jar of something into the wall.

“I failed!” screamed Scootaloo, her anger collapsing into sadness. “If I had just been smarter, just tried harder, I could have brought her back!”

Applejack released her hoof. “Come outside with me,” she said.

Scootaloo looked up, confused, but followed Applejack out into the light of the sun and down the clubhouse ramp. They walked together through the orchard for several minutes beneath the glossy leaves of the trees and the seemingly endlessly ripe apples above.

“Ah understand how yah feel,” said Applejack at last, pausing beneath an especially large tree and looking out over the hills that contained her life’s work. “She was mah friend to. One of mah best friends, and she’s done left a hole in mah heart that can’t raghtly be filled.”

“But you still have your sister, and your brother, and Granny Smith…I have nothing.”

“Thah’s not true and you know it. Yah have Applebloom and Sweetie Belle, and yah have all the rest of us.”

“Am I being greedy?” said Scootaloo, sounding so very tired. “I know. I know you’re right…but every time I think about her…”

“Ah know.” Applejack sighed. “But yah can’t bring the dead back. Believe me on this.”

“But the paper said- -”

Applejack shook her head. “Ah’ve tried.”

“You…tried?”

“Has Applebloom ever talked abouht our parents?”

“N…no,” said Scootaloo.

“She whas young. She probably doesn’t even remember. But ah do. Ah watched them daih.”

“I- -I’m sorry.”

Applejack looked out at the distance, where the sun was starting to set. “Fahve years ago, ah had a conversation with a pony bah the name of Blackest Night. One ah can’t ever manage tah forget.”

“Blackest Night…I remember…she was that voice, that spoke to us all.”

“Yeah. Nightmare Moon…sort ahv. The thing that lives insahd Luna, waitin. She had the curse.”

“Curse?” asked Scootaloo, confused.

Applejack nodded solemnly. “Yeah. She could bring them back.”

Scootaloo’s eyes widened, and she smiled for the first time in a long time at that glimmer of hope. “So she could- -”

Applejack shook her head. “Thah’s what ah asked her. It doesn’t work that wah. There has to be a body, a fresh one, ahnd even then…”

“There were feathers,” said Scootaloo, desperately trying to hold onto that last glimmer of hope. “Will that work?”

“Sugarcube…no. But even if there was…yah need to let her rest.”

“How can you say that?!” screamed Scootaloo. “How can you call yourself her friend?!”

Scootaloo’s anger was diffused by Applejack’s lack of response.

“It took me a lohng time to understand that, but now…ah think ah get it. A pony’s tahm is her tahm. If yah take that away from her, well…it just ain’t within you’re raghts, even if yah are her friend. Becahse you’re only slowin down what’s gonna happen eventually. Bringin ‘em back isn’t right. That’s not what we do. We keep Dash here.” She put her hoof over her heart. “We remember her. Even if it makes us crah, we love her, as much as we did in lahfe.”

“But I miss her,” said Scootaloo. “I…I miss her so much. Who’s going to teach me how to fly? Who’s going to hang out with me, and talk to me? Oh Celestia, I miss her…”

“So do ah,” said Applejack. She looked down at the filly, and saw the young pony’s sadness. Insider her, she felt the same sadness- -but she also knew that she was lying. Applejack knew something that Scootaloo did not, and because of it, she could never understand her pain, at least not completely.

She sighed, unable to contain that piece of information within her any longer, not if it meant breaking Scootaloo’s heart any worse than it already was. “Scoots…” she said. “Ahm gonna tell you somethin, somethin ah thought I would take to mah grave. But first you have to promise me.”

“Promise what?”

“Nevehr tell it to anypony. Especially not Twahlight, because if she knew, it would kill her.”

“I promise.”

“Pinkie promise?”

Scootaloo nodded.

Applejack sighed once again, unable to believe that she was going to tell another pony what she had been told by the green-eyed alicorn on that dark night. “Blackest Night- -she had other powers too. Ones no pony’s meant to have. One of ‘em was to see the future.”

“She…she could see the future?”

“Yup. Not completely, but she knew things. She gave me a gift, a prophesy. She told me that of the Six of us- -Twalight and the others, ah mean- -one of us would dah before the others, but that the fihrst to go wouldn’t really be that fihrst.”

“What does that mean?”

“Ah don’t know. Ah don’t even know if she realleh could see the future- -but I lahke to think she could. It means that since Rainbow Dash was the fihrst to dah, she didn’t realleh dah.”

“You mean- -” Scootaloo’s jaw dropped.

“Yes. If it’s true, she’s alive…somehow, somewhere. Now, don’t go and get ahead of yahrself. There’s no way to know what state she’s in, and ahm pretty sure no matter what, yah can’t get her back.”

“But- -”

“Ahnd that’s whah yah can’t ever tell Twalight. Because she would spend her entire life trying to get Rainbow back, and ah don’t want to lose her lahke that. It isn’t wat Rainbow would have wanted. She would have wanted us tah move on, tah live our lives, and tell stories abouht her when we are able.”

Scootaloo looked out at the sunset, and the two stood in the orange light for a long time.

“Do you ever get over the pain?” she asked.

“No,” said Applejack. “But it gets tolerable.”

“I think you’re right.”

“’Bout what?”

“That it is what Rainbow Dash would have wanted me to do.”

“That’s good,” said Applejack, patting Scootaloo’s purple mane. “Now you go back to the house- -you can stay with us tonight. Yah look like would fall asleep in a pahl of potatoes if yah had half a chance.”

Scootaloo smiled, if weakly. “Thanks, Applejack,” she said.

Applejack continued to look at the sunset as Scootaloo followed the trail back to the farmhouse. She suddenly found herself breathing heavily. Thinking about the prophesy had reminded her of the second part, the part that she had not told Scootaloo. It was the part that sometimes made her bolt upright at night, covered in sweat, or fail to sleep at all.

One of them would only appear to die. That one had been Rainbow Dash. The first of them to truly fall, however, had already been selected- -and Applejack knew that it would be her. She did not know when it would be; she supposed that they could all live out long, happy lives- -but somehow, in her gut, she felt like her own time was far more limited.

That was only part of what frightened her. The idea of leaving her friends and her family was what kept her awake at night, but what truly frightened her was the ideas that would only come when the thoughts managed to sneak through when she was awake: that she would never again need to witness her friends die, but that they all would see her go. She was strong, and she would have taken it for them all- -to watch them all go, to bear that burden, but she simply could not. That was not in her fate.

The one who bore that terrible fate was the one who Appejack’s heart broke for. The one of them who was immortal, the one who had outlived one and would outlive all five by centuries and millennia. Applejack knew the pain of loss, and she felt tears running down her face, not for Rainbow Dash or even for herself, but for Twilight.

Chapter 23: A Train

View Online

Rainbow Dash looked up at the hulking mass of steel before her, her head slowly rising until she nearly fell over from looking so high. She had seen large buildings before, in Manehattan or even in Canterlot, but this was no building. It was a train.

The rails alone were inconceivably huge- -each one was forty feet wide and nearly fifteen feet tall, spaced over two hundred feet apart. The engine itself spanned the distance and wider, perched on the rails by proportionally large wheels to a train that must have been close to seven hundred feet tall, its industrial walkways and windows making it look more like a ship and the numerous halide lights set in it making it look more like a refinery. Even inactive, the sound it was producing was like distant thunder, and steam would occasionally billow from its sides.

“Have you ever before witnessed a train?” asked Five, who was standing beside Rainbow Dash, also admiring the vehicle.

“I have,” said Rainbow Dash, watching as ponies worked on the train, its size making them look like ants. “But they used to be…a lot smaller…”

“This one was built by Saxon Heavy Industries,” explained Five. “Three million tons of steel and iron with six full-sized nuclear reactors. It takes seventeen individual AI’s to operate it. Her name is Princess of the Night.”

“Wait,” said Rainbow Dash, turning to Five. “You mean like Luna?”

“I imagine,” said Five.

“So they named that thing after Luna?”

“Possibly.”

Rainbow Dash turned back to the locomotive. “I don’t feel like Luna would like the comparison…”

“I believe she would,” said Five. “But I know that we both had proper sets of genitals, I would give that machine my virginity.”

Rainbow Dash’s eyes widened. “Um…okay…” She continued to admire the machine, and tried to wait for the awkwardness of that last statement- -which Five did not seem to be aware of- -to fade.

“It is pretty metal,” said Rainbow Dash.

Without changing her facial expression, Five raised one of her metal-covered hooves. A set of claws popped out, and she brought several of them together, forming four fingers. She lowered the two in the middle and extended the two on the edge.

“No way!” said Rainbow Dash, nearly bursting out laughing. “You’re into metal?”

“Not the modern stuff so much. Too whiny. But the stuff from you’re era, it was reasonable.”

“Pinkie was way into thrash,” said Rainbow Dash, recalling several concerts they had attended together. “But I just loved power metal!”

“There was a chiropteran band…SaBaton?”

“I remember that!” squealed Rainbow Dash. “With the singer who had the Mohawk! I loved them! And what was that one, the one where almost every song was about werewoods?”

“Powerwoad?”

“Oh, yes! Them!”

“I rather do enjoy their material. I even was ‘sanctified with dynamite’ once.”

“That brings back some memories,” said Rainbow Dash. They were good ones, too. She was actually surprised- -and relieved- -to see that she and Five had at least one thing in common.

“What are we talking about?” said Gell, casting a shadow over them. She was wearing a cloak that mostly obscured her demonic features, and carrying a greasy paper bag of something highly odiferous.

“Metal,” said Five.

“Hail Satin!” cried Gell, extending one of her hooves into the sky. Several passersby jumped, terrified, and scurried away. Rainbow Dash was vaguely disturbed by how dexterous the two prongs of Gell’s hooves were; they could separate and point in almost opposite directions. The very idea of a hoof doing that made her shiver.

“Don’t be a poseur,” said Five, nonchalantly. She turned to Rainbow Dash. “She mostly only listens to calypso.”

“It’s true,” said Gell, shrugging. “I like steel drums.”

Gell reached into the greasy bag she was holding and withdrew a pile of something gross, and promptly shoved it into Rainbow Dash’s mouth.

“MMMFF!” she said, feeling something with a horrible texture in her mouth. She swallowed it, though, and nearly vomited. “What was that?”

“Haggis!” said Gell, shoving several pieces of the long, gross substance into her mouth.

“Haggis?” cried Five, jumping back faster than Rainbow Dash had ever seen her move. “I thought I smelled- -get it away from me!”

“Are you sure?” said Gell, dangling the bag, letting the nearly visible smell waft out.

Five promptly vomited. Small crystals scattered all around Rainbow Dash’s feet.

“Is that normal for her?” said Rainbow Dash.

“I…hate…the smell of food,” said Five, her eye sunken and her gray skin looking green. “I can’t- -ooop!” She heaved again, and more crystals- -these red- -came out.

“Fine,” said Gell. She downed the rest of the bag. “Ah! Nothing like haggis truck haggis!”

“What is haggis?” asked Rainbow Dash, herself starting to feel like Five was looking.

“Don’t worry,” said Gell. “I got you the vegetarian kind.”

“How in Equestria do you make vegetarian haggis?” asked Five, dry heaving at the thought.

“Out of vegetarians, I guess.”

“Ohhhh…I feel terrible. Help me pick up these gems…”

Rainbow Dash hesitated, knowing that the gemstones were technically vomit, but recalling that she herself had once had a similar condition after ingesting an Order-saturated apple in the Gloame. She knew that they really were gems, same as the kind that grew in the ground- -and knew how agonizing it was to get one stuck in one’s nose.

They took a few moments to pick up the gems, many of which were still greasy with whatever kind of fluids were inside Five. Then they continued on their way. As they did, Rainbow Dash could not stop herself from flying into the air and looking out at the train in the distance. She could not get over the bigness of everything. The train itself was several miles long, stretching nearly to the horizon, and the stations that lined it were equally as long. Things of all kinds were being loaded onto in scales that dwarfed anything she had ever seen- -lumber, stone, agricultural crops, fluids; she even saw several whole battleships parked on cars in the distance. She could not believe that she was actually going to get to ride that thing.

She looked down at the ponies that were surrounding the train, and easily picked out where Gell and Five were. Rainbow dash performed a large sweep around the engine itself, looking down at the metal and drawing herself through the warmth of the plumes of flames. As she dropped from the sky, she was joined by a pair of red-orange wings, and Philomena fell into formation with her. Below, the pony engineers checking the locomotive looked up, pointing, some waving. One even cheered. Excited, Rainbow Dash decided to give them a bit of a show, and performed some tricks that she was distantly aware she had not performed in four and a half centuries. She slowed her speed and performed several loops so slow that she seemed to fall out of the sky, and Philomena kept her position. The engineers below cheered louder and whistled.

Smiling, Rainbow Dash re-scanned the ground and descended toward where Gell and Five were waiting. She swooped from the sky, momentarily hovering over them before dropping vertically to the pavement below.

“Very impressive,” said Gell. “You are indeed an impressive specimen.”

“Is the prosthetic operating appropriately?” asked Five.

“It sure is!” said Rainbow Dash, waving around her front leg and then her rear one before jumping into the air and nearly kicking a passerby. “It hardly even feels like it’s there! It’s just like my real leg!”

“This is good,” said Five, rather dismissively.

“Yeah! To be honest, I really missed the origional at first, but being a cyberpony is kind of cool! Oh, who am I kidding, being half-robot is awesome!”

“It is actually only your legs and several internal organs,” corrected five.

“You’re saying words…but I hear ‘half’.”

Five sighed. “Come on. If we do not hurry, we’ll miss the train. Or Gell with get distracted by a tripe vender.” Five shuddered.

“What?” said Gell, suddenly paying attention. “Did somepony say tripe?”

“What is ‘tripe’?”

“You would rather not know,” said Gell and Five at the same time. Philomena, who had perched on Rainbow Dash’s back, nodded in agreement.

The started walking across the concrete platform, but Rainbow Dash oddly good. Even though the station was lit only by harsh, white lights and there were all sorts of strange things around her, the world seemed like more of an adventure. She liked the feeling of the cool air, and the fact that even with her injuries- -injuries that would have put her permanently out of commission in her own time- -she was still able to fly, and still could rally a crowd.

“Hey, what’s that!” she said, excitedly. She jumped into the air and flew forward. Ahead of her, something was being loaded onto one of the train cars. Rainbow Dash had seen loading docks before, but these were on such a grand scale, she could not help herself from becoming excited.

As she did, she stopped and, once again, felt her jaw drop. Although it had taken some effort, she had become accustomed to seeing equidroids. Every one of them she had ever seen had been at least approximately the size of a pony, though. The ones she saw working on the docks, however, were at least forty feet tall from hoof to withers, toting heavy cargo on their backs.

The particular cargo they were carrying was also interesting in its own right. Whatever it was, they were large and metal, vaguely shaped like birds, complete with stiff, immobile wings with a translucent window in the front. Rainbow Dash assumed it was some kind of vehicle, and also noted the fact that the giant equidroids had an entire fleet of them to move.

“Oh wow! Look at them all!”

“Indeed,” said Five, approaching from the ground. She did not seem especially excited. Rainbow Dash supposed things like this were mundane for her, which was a shame.

“What are those things?”

“Supersonic jetfighters,” said Five.

“Supersonic what?”

“Flying machines,” said Five, slowing her voice down substantially.

“Those? But, look at them! They’re made of metal! Metal can’t fly!”

“Says the cyborg flying at this very moment.”

Rainbow Dash looked at the machines that the Equidroids were moving. They did, in a way, look like something that might fly. She recognized that the back had several outputs that looked a little like the magical propulsion system Twilight had invented, but there were other parts as well, and she could not see where the hot air bag was supposed to go.

“But…why would ponies need those if we can already fly?”

“Because Pegasi can only carry so much in the way of weaponry. I doubt even you could support a stratobomber for very long in a dogfight. Flightless ponies can fly now, Ms. Dash.”

“So…just anypony can get into one of those things and…fly?” Rainbow Dash did not know what to make of such an idea. She supposed, in some part, that it was a good thing, that now anypony could experience the freedom that had been previously reserved for Pegasi- -but part of it just felt wrong. “Even a unicorn?”

“Not anypony. Soldiers. Airponies. Those are not toys. They are weapons, meant to kill. In fact…”

Five crossed the gap and approached one of the giant equidroids, one that was waiting with a “jetfighter” on its back, waiting for the others to pass it as they loaded theirs on board.

“Excuse me,” said Five as Rainbow Dash landed beside her. The equidroid seemed to notice them. Something on its flank shifted, retracting and revealing a small multi-faceted dome. The dome suddenly illuminated, and bright blue light filled the air in front of five, resolving into a ghostly image of a pony.

“Ghost!” cried Rainbow Dash, jumping behind Gell.

“It is no more than a hologram,” said Five.

“Hello, Five,” said the smiling image of a pony. Its body looked somewhat unnatural, as if its parts were only the exterior surface of a pony, like a basic cartoon image of what one should look like. “How may I help you?”

“Does it…does it know you?” asked Rainbow Dash.

“Excuse me,” said hologram, sounding somewhat annoyed and frowning at Rainbow Dash. “I am a female AI. The correct pronoun to use when referring to me is ‘she’. ‘It’ is insulting.”

“Oops,” said Rainbow Dash. “Um, sorry. I didn’t know.”

The AI smiled. “All is forgiven. You simply did not know my gender. And no, I do not know Five. I am reading her personal data from her equipment’s digital signature in an attempt to sound more affable.”

“These planes,” said Five. “Is 616 at war?”

“No,” said the AI. “These planes are for distribution to 21, 789, and the Black-Wing Alliance for their wars with 334/2311/84, the Nerium Consortium, and the Pit-City, respectively.”

“Thank you for your assistance,” said Five.

“Not a problem. Remember, purchase all your warfare supplies from Steelhammer Industrial.”

The hologram dissipated and the mechanical door in the equidroid’s flank re-sealed itself. After several moments, she took her place in line with the others, carrying her jetfighter to be filed onto the traincar with the others.

“War?” said Rainbow Dash, her eyes wideneing. “There’s a war going on?”

“There are always wars occurring,” said Five.

“But doesn’t Celestia- -I mean Thebe- -”

“Thebe protects her own interests. She cares little for the wars of mortals. Also, believe me, you do not want her involved in a war.”

“No survivors sort of thing,” said Gell, her mouth full of something.

“Where did you get that?” said Five, looking up and stepping back.

“You said Tripe, so I got hungry. And the tripe mare was totally into me. Do I have time for a little bit of ‘tripe’ with her?”

“Stop filling my head with unpleasant visions,” said Five. “And don’t breathe on me! Tripe is gross. And no, we don’t.”

“You’re no fun,” muttered Gell, finishing the foul-smelling substance she was eating. “She had the most seductive smile, too…still barely a candle to you, though, my little pony.” She patted Rainbow Dash on the head, which was almost the same size as her hoof. Philomena produced a disproving warble.

“I know, I know,” said Gell. “Annnnnd I’m talking to a bird. You know, I could have conquer this world. So far I have fallen.”

“They would bait a pit-fall with a liver taco and end your reign rapidly,” suggested Five.

“Liver…” said Gell, salivating.

“Do you ever stop eating?” asked Rainbow Dash.

“Nope. Eating, sleeping, castration, and amazing sex with amazing mares. That’s the demon way. Well, for a female demon. The males sort of do what we tell them.”

“Train. Not be late. Move now,” said Five, motioning for them to keep on their way. Watching her get agitated was somewhat funny.

“And I get stuck with a whiny teenager…”

Rainbow Dash snorted, covering her mouth as Five glared at her.

Even the boarding of the train was strange. There was a large, flat area set aside from the rest of the station, fenced off and containing several large containers that looked something like ordinary train cars. From what Rainbow Dash gathered, they were meant to be loaded onto the train like any other form of freight- -something that she found somewhat disheartening.

They lined up in the queue with the other ponies, as well as several nonponies ranging from goats to llama to a pair of rugged looking griffons. Rainbow Dash waited impatiently to pass down the line, wanting to go talk to the griffons and see if they had any griffon ale, but finding that the line was packed to tightly for her to move much.

Eventually their turn came at the ticket booth- -an Rainbow Dash was surprised to see that there was nopony there, aside from the armed guards standing next to the gate and a small post with a smooth metal pad next to the set of turnstiles. As they got closer, Rainbow Dash saw that each pony that would approach would put their right hoof over the pad; a light would then change color, and they would pass through.

When it was their turn, Five placed her right hoof over the pad.

“Three and one animal,” she said. The pad seemed to beep in response, and a display near it changed, showing a string of digits that Rainbow Dash cold not read. Then they simply passed through.

“It is so nice to finally arrive at a location that uses bits,” said Five.

“Bits?” said Rainbow Dash, confused, looking back at the ponies passing through the gate. “But there aren’t any bits, they’re just waving their hooves!”

“It’s a chip,” said Five. “Most ponies have it implanted at birth. Obviously, mine is virtual. You have one in your left hoof. I will transfer funds to your account upon reaching our destination.”

“So you just wave your hoof and it just takes the bits out with what, magic?”

“No. It’s just a digital transfer.”

“And,” said Rainbow Dash as they stepped onto the ramp of one of the more dilapidated containers, “um…just how many bits do you have in there?”

“Don’t be rude,” said Gell.

“About sixty million,” said Five.

“Sixty million bits?!” cried Rainbow Dash, causing several onlookers to stare at them.

“Great,” said Gell. “Now we’re going to be robbed again…”

“Sorry,” said Rainbow Dash.

“Oh, don’t be. The last one who tried had an excellent pair.”

“But you are loaded! And you live like this? How did you even get that man bits?!”

“I had cholera. Twice.”

It took Rainbow Dash a moment to process what she was saying. Then she understood. “Ohhhh,” she said. Then, realizing the implication, “eeeewww…”

“Some mercenary jobs also pay a lot. And I tend to steal things.”

“But- -stealing is bad!”

“I’m too tired for my ‘moral relativism’ rant,” said Five, pointing to a bank of chairs. The inside of the train car smelled strange, and the seats were ragged and stained. They were arranged against the walls, with a pair of cloth-like benches facing each other with a small table in the center.

Gell motioned for Rainbow Dash to enter first, which she accepted because it gave her the window seat. Five sat across from Rainbow Dash. Gell sat on the floor in a slot where a chair had been removed, which was probably the reason Five had picked that particular spot.

“Nothing is designed to the right size,” complained Gell.

“Tell me about it,” said a voice with a thick Galloway accent from the seats on the other side of the train. “And say, are you a Rainbow Dash impersonator?”

“You might say that,” said Rainbow Dash, leaning forward to look past Gell at the speaker- -and once again feeling her jaw drop open.

“I’ve always been a fan of Third Era followers,” said the owner of the voice, who Rainbow Dash now saw was, of all things, an owl. He was wearing glasses and had a hologram of something like a newspaper projected in front of him. He deactivated the hologram and folded his reading glasses neatly with his wing. “Perhaps I could get a picture?”

“Ow…ow…owl,” muttered Rainbow Dash.

“Sure,” said Gell. She picked up Rainbow Dash and set her in the isle. The owl fluttered into the air, perching on the top of his seat. A small sphere projected from a band around one of his legs, and floated out before him, snapping a picture and returning to him.

“Thank you, dearie,” he said. “My colleges will be most jealous! And might I say, what a lovely phoenix.” He bowed toward Philomena, who had seated herself on the table between Rainbow Dash and Five’s seats. The bird raised her wing to her face, and seemed to blush.

“Owl…owl…owl,” mumbled Rainbow Dash as Gell picked her up and returned her to her seat. The owl bowed to them and returned to the far side of his seat, near the window, and opened his holographic newspaper. After a few moments, a pony approached and, as though nothing were unusual, asked him if the seat across from him was taken and then, at the owl’s friendly response, sat down.

“We should have charged,” said Five, only half serious.

“That was...that was an owl,” whispered Rainbow Dash. “They can…since when can they talk?”

“Since about three centuries ago,” said Five. “An uplift experiment by Thebe, or somesuch. They actually have, in Unst, a rather impressive capital city.”

“But they’re owls,” said Rainbow Dash. Her mind was still not fully able to comprehend what she was being told, that something once considered a pet had now become equivalent to a pony. “Owls.”

“And you are a small horse,” noted Gell. “You evolved from ponies, him from birds, me from…mold?” Five nodded. “Doesn’t matter much, though.”

“It’s just…weird,” said Rainbow Dash. Her happiness, for some reason, was beginning to fade. She needed to change the subject. “So, um, where exactly are we going?”

“Megatropolis 616,” said Five. “Again.”

“An hates cities,” said Gell.

“I do not dislike cities. I simply detest their populations.”

“The name just doesn’t sound right…” said Rainbow Dash. “But why are we going there?”

“I am curious as well,” said Gell.

“616 is the most stable of the Megatropoli, and one of the largest. We are going there so that you might witness the Equestria History Museum.”

“A museum?” sighed Rainbow Dash, thoroughly disappointed. She slouched back in her seat. “Five, I’m Rainbow Dash, not Twilight.”

“I don’t care. The reason is because said museum contains a permanent exhibit to the Six.”

“You mean…” said Rainbow Dash, sitting up. “A museum about me?”

“And your friends, yes,” said Five. “As a group, you have a whole floor. It will be easier for you to learn the past that way than for me to explain it all. Perhaps this will help alleviate your depression.”

“I’m not depressed,” said Rainbow Dash, defensively.

“Of course. Sure. Also, you shall see.”

“See…what?”

“What the world has truly become in your absence.”

“Oh,” said Rainbow Dash. For some reason, she suddenly felt afraid, and she felt a desperate urge to fly. When she was flying, she could escape the feelings of dread and see a world that was new and strange and wonderful- -but then the feelings would always come back: memories of the world she had lost. In that museum, she would be forced to face that which was crushing her from within, and the thought nearly made her panic. “I- -I’m not sure I’m ready for that yet…”

“Too bad.” Five’s eyes narrowed. “And don’t lie to me.”

“I’m not lying!”

“Yes, you are. This whole time you have wondered. You desire to see so much. Every second you think of it, wondering where they went, what they did. Perhaps if their lives ended badly?”

“Stop reading my mind!” shouted Rainbow Dash, causing the pony and owl across the car from them to glare at her.

“I’m not,” said Five, calmly. “For some reason, I can’t. I just know these things. Though I may look young and fresh, I am old enough to be your grandmother. Well, perhaps not your grandmother, but a grandmother. I have lived a long time, and the other one has lived longer. I see these things, even if I do not understand them.”

“Yeah,” said Rainbow Dash. “Granny Five…maybe. Can you at least give me a hint?”

Five paused for a moment. “No,” she finally said.

Leaning against the rail of the battleship, Five looked through the scope of her rifle. Although they were moving at nearly supersonic speeds, she sighted her targets as they passed: diamond dogs, pony workers, and deer. The claw on her left hoof pulled the trigger rapidly, and there was a brief moment where she could see the laser burn into them before the train passed them by.

“Ooo,” said Gell, who was standing beside her. “Right in the plot!”

Five twisted slightly and managed to hit both of a pair of does that were watching the train pass. They jumped in pain, not understanding why their flesh was burning. Five had decreased the power of the laser component of her rifle- -the wounds it inflicted would be painful, perhaps leaving scars, but they were hardly dangerous.

“Why are you out here, Gell?” asked Five. Although it was difficult for the two to hear each other over the rushing of the air over the ship’s deck, Gell had once again allowed their minds to link, allowing them to hear each other’s words clearly.

“What are you doing out here? Aside from sniper practice?”

“You know why: that owl opened up a cup of yogurt. ‘But it’s plain’ he says. It still stinks! Like rot and death! But you did not need to accompany me.”

“Anhelios,” said Gell, her eyes narrowing. Five cringed at hearing that name. “What are you up to?”

Five sniped one last diamond dog, and then lifted her rifle, lowering the scope and retracting the barrel. She turned around and faced Gell. “What do you mean?”

“Taking her to the museum? In 616? An, you’ve never taken one altruistic action in your life. Why are you doing this?”

Five sat down against the rail, replacing her fully compacted rifle into the holster under her wing. She raised one of her gauntlets and projected a hologram, displaying an advertisement. She passed the floating construct to Gell.

“Come see the Mane Six in person,” read Gell. “Now you too can meat Pinkie Pie, Rainbow Dash, Applejack, Fluttershy, Rarity, and Twilight Sparkle in stunning hard-light construct, exhibit at the Equestria History Museum, blah blah blah…”

“Meet, not ‘meat’,” corrected Five.

“What is this?” said Gell, driving her hoof through the hologram, trying futilely to flick it back to Five. “I mean, I know you’re a history nerd, but holo-simulation? Really?”

“I have no need to meet them,” said Five, retracting the hologram back to her gauntlet and dissipating it. “I already have, back when I was Luna.”

“Then why bother?”

“Because of what allows such an exhibit to exist,” said Five. “I have researched this greatly. The exhibit operates with coded personality simulations. They are said to be the most advanced in Equestria- -it is claimed that Thebe herself assisted with the design.”

“Still not getting it.”

Five sighed. “It’s for the weapon,” she said. “The skulls alone are just bone, unless I fail to perceive a Choggoth in your pocket. I cannot get them to activate, not without something almost identical to their original users.”

“Explains why you kept Dashie alive.” She frowned. “So you’re trying to steal this…core, thing?”

“The personalities contained are exact replicas of the Six, or nearly so. I am attempting to recreate their bodies synthetically to access data contained within the skulls to act as an analogue to the original Harmony matrix- -”

“Yes, or no?”

“Yes.”

“Then count me out. You know how bad I do with the whole ‘heist’ thing. But what about Dashie?”

Five unfolded her rifle again and took up her position on the side of the train. “Let her go to the museum. Let her see how her friends died. Let her loyalty to them die as well, and fall to me instead.”

Rainbow Dash stumbled into the bathroom and barely made it over the toilet before the vomit started pouring out of her. It did not come out like it did with Five. No gemstones or crystals came out; instead, just torrents of yellow-black fluid twinged with blood.

When she had finished, she took another swig from the bottle in her left hoof, feeling the burning and foul tasting drink pour down her throat. Things had been going so well at first, but then they had started to change. As she had watched the landscape go by at such high speed, the others had stopped talking. As soon as the pony and the owl in the neighboring seats had opened their lunches, Five had looked deathly ill and stormed off, joined by Gell, leaving Rainbow Dash alone.

That was when she had started to think. The thinking was agony. The world around her was so different: the massive train, her robotic limbs, and even the owls. She did not understand any of it; it was as though her whole life, all the effort she had placed into everything she had ever done, had been wiped away. She had been shoved into a new world that she did not understand, and the more she had thought about her situation the less it looked like an adventure and the more it seemed like an inescapable torment.

Everything hurt, not physically, but mentally, as though the universe were trying to squeeze her out of existence- -and she could not blame it. She did not belong. Every second, she expected to turn around, to see Pinkie Pie smiling, or Fluttershy standing at her side- -but every time there was nothing there.

She took another long swig from the bottle. She had bought it from the dining area from the goat bartender using several of Five’s gems. The goat had been reluctant, but had eventually accepted the currency- -and given Rainbow Dash a whole bottle. She needed it, though, and would probably need more. The burning liquid made the voices in her head slow down, and it numbed the memories that she had somehow once considered to be happy but that now brought her nothing but pain.

Slowly, she stood up and looked in the mirror. She looked so tired and so pale, like a corpse- -which she supposed she was: a corpse that had somehow failed to die properly. She wiped the vomit away from her mouth and took another long swig of whatever bitter alcohol the goat had given her. She missed her cloud gin, her house, her bed, her friends, her tortoise, and she hated the world around her with its sterile and overcomplicated machinery. Mostly, she just hated Five for having not let her die in a bloody heap at the end of that empty airship runway.

For a long moment, she peered into the mirror, seeing the bathroom stalls reflected behind her. Then something caught her eye. She leaned closer, looking into one of her eyes, and wondered why the back of her pupil seemed to be filled with golden flecks.

As she shifted, she saw a pony standing behind her, his face reflecting so close to hers. She jumped and turned around, not in the mood to be dealing with a weirdo with anything except a full-blown hoof-fight, but saw nopony.

She looked around, then at the bottle. “This ith good stuff,” she muttered, and then tried to down the rest of it. She would go to museum. She would see what became of the life that was rightfully hers, and her friend’s. She owed at least that much to them.

Then, she decided, she would join them.

Chapter 24: True Happiness

View Online

The airships had come, as Epicenter had expected. They had taken the others away, carrying them off to medical centers throughout the world. Even the “dead” had been taken for further study. There of course were no dead; the repair process never failed. Hearts would stop and brains would fail, but they would return to order in time, and those taken would return with the memories that were their birthright.

Now there was no one. They had all gone. With the workers missing, the town had fallen to the equdroids to maintain all normal functions. They were useful for transmission of the vector, but they themselves could not be infected. As such, Epicenter had eliminated them

It was not even difficult. She did not know why she had never managed to see how easily the world could be controlled, how it could simply be bent to one’s will. Somehow, she had once believed that magic only came from horns drilled into skulls, locking into primitive brains. Such primitive genetic manipulation was a limitation, however; it had been meant, clearly, as a handicap. Magic was so much more than that.

So she wandered, passing through the empty streets beneath the darkened sky. That sky, long ago, had held Spheres. This world had contained a Finality Core, and it had been activated, and yet somehow it still stood. Epicenter did not know what that actually meant, but she recognized that it was important.

Eventually she found her way indoors, into something like a warehouse. The machinery around her was running down, the endless refineries and hubs of power conduits and pipelines failing without maintenance. All around her she could smell the contamination of foreign life forms, scurrying in the darkness.

She raised her hand, and the rats filling the storeroom lifted into the air. They floated for a moment, and then screeched as they were thrown together into a super-dense pellet of still-living organic matter. Epicenter then dissipated the matter itself into Order; she had no need for further biomass.

Instead, she focused her mind on the materials around her, at the machines that made the factories and that constituted the thousands of inert and broken mechanical bodies that lined the streets. She could feel their presence, and the presence of unique parts within them; schematics floated through her mind, informing her of what was necessary.

Then they converged, the pieces pulling themselves toward her. Many stopped before her, floating momentarily as she aligned them together, performing necessary transformations and generations with Chaos as they poured in. Rapidly, she began linking them to her body, tearing away her own skin to get at the machines already inside her.

She remembered life as a pony, and she remembered that throughout all of it, she had never known such happiness. To be covered in the cold of metal was unlike any other force she could even conceive of; to be protected, sealed, isolated. Not from real damage, of course; she was already immortal, as they all would be. It was to protect her from them- -from the others like her. The idea of touching them, of feeling them, of touching another living being, of feeling any manner of intimacy was abhorrent, not because it was disgusting, but because she hated them. She hated them all so much, but that was only natural: it was a normal instinct to harbor murderous rage toward all of one’s own kind, even though they would work together to accomplish their shared goal. They were, after all, different.

As her true body began finishing construction, she felt the mask fall into place and felt rush of synthetic opiates as the suit began injecting them into her. She smiled at the cool, nearly cold feeling of calm, numbing her against the inherent pain of existence. She felt the helmet beginning to modulate the function of her brain, to control the rage and hatred, mediating and tempering it as it took away the unevenness of a biological mind.

Then, within minutes, she allowed the chaff to fall and stood completed. There was, however, and anomaly. The schematics were variable, but they were pragmatic; ornamentation was useless when all members of the only true living race were technically blind. Somehow, however, there was an insignia mounted on her body. She tried several times to deconstruct the element and rebuild it, but every time the image returned- -until eventually she gave up.

Epicenter took note of the construct that was watching her from the top of a distant fractioning tower, and aligned herself toward where the other one was waiting for his comrades to arrive, and Epicenter started walking. As she did, she momentarily gave consideration to the symbol mounted on her shoulder plate before determining that it was trivial.

That symbol was a single number “0”.

Chapter 25: The Hunter and the Prey

View Online

Far in the distance of the lifeless hub city, a golem watched from the heights of a tall tower. It’s narrow body was coated in a shell of red magic, but to an outside observer, it would have been entirely invisible. Invisibility was trivial to Thebe, but this was far more than that. The golem itself was ghosting, its body only tangentially touching the realm of Equestria, held outside and secure by a powerful spell. It could not touch, and not be touched; and although it could watch, it was absolutely impossible for any outside observer to be aware of its presence.

Thebe controlled legions of golems, but this one, for the time being, was unique. With the situation at hand, she had forced through the Tantabus prototypes. This was the first of what she hoped to become a new line, a kind of golem that march through cities unhindered, to watch the very minds of her subjects as the goddess Luna once had.

That, of course, was only part of its uniqueness. Most of Thebe’s golems functioned on a lower level of her consciousness; that is, they were largely autonomous. It was seldom that she brought one to her true mind to see through its eyes, to use it as a puppet, but in this case, it was necessary. Her true body- -if it could even be called that anymore- -produced far too much magic to remain undetected, even with the containment suit. The time would indeed come when she would reveal herself, but not now: now, it was time to watch, to learn, and to know what she would face when she finally brought the might of Equestria’s one true goddess against this new enemy.

What she had learned had excited her greatly. She felt as though she had been asleep so long, with so little to do. The ponies that surrounded her were dull, ephemeral, and exceedingly fragile- -but this thing seemed to be so much more.

She had watched as it moved through the streets, her red-shelled golem following it from the shadows beyond reality. Its form alone had been breathtakingly horrid: a skeletal, eyeless biped with ashen gray skin covered in fine hair, the shadows of black machines visible beneath its translucent flesh, sometimes ulcerating through and liking to one half-formed gauntlet on its left hand. It was truly a monster, a creature not meant to exist- -but it had moved with such grace and power, as if in defiance of a world where it did not belong, and in defiance of death itself, which surely should have claimed such a horror long ago.

That alone was interesting, but not highly relevant. If Thebe had wanted a monster, she could easily have easily created one. It was what it did that made it special. She had watched as it had, without any visible effort, destroyed an entire city of equidroids, wiping over two hundred AIs before they even knew what was bringing about their death.

Then it had walked through the wreckage, alone, unaffected by what it had done- -or perhaps admiring the carnage, until it had reached and decrepit wearhouse. There, Thebe had witnessed a display of magic that brought a powerful tingling sensation to parts of herself that she had long forgotten that she even had. It had pulled together such disparate disciplines, drawing on matter from around itself. There was clairvoyance, telekinesis, material conversion, and so many others- -but even that was eclipsed by what Thebe momentarily felt from within it. This creature could do the impossible: it had the capacity to wield both Order and Chaos. No known creature could do such a thing; doing so should have been lethal. The few users of Chaos- -Discord, Buttery Snake, and the King in Yellow- -had no capacity to use Order; likewise, the only users of Order- -Choggoth Oblivion, the bloodline of Cavern Melody, and the deceased Six- -could never wield Chaos. This creature, somehow, had manipulated both so effortlessly, so procedurally; Thebe had never witnessed something so beautiful.

When it was done, it had constructed a kind of shell around itself- -although such a description was hardly appropriate. Thebe had watched carefully, and understood the nature of the armor, at least to the extent that her golem was able to witness without being detected. From her perspective, it seemed that the sickly semi-organic creature inside the armor was actually little more than an accessory to the armor itself, used as a kind of source of magic, or as a point to reset it into its true form. The irony was somewhat poetic- -both she, Thebe, and it, the creature, were sealed forever in suits of metal- -and yet could not be more different. Thebe’s was made of magic, an extension of herself, a correction of her limited pony form, while the creature’s was purely physical, made entirely out of machines that it had built to some kind of internal schematic, merging machine and flesh into a single pure form.

Then it had simply started walking. That had confused Thebe. For a creature of that power, teleportation should have been a simple task. It was possible that it simply did not know the spell, or lacked the mental facilities necessary to target or construct one. Thebe still did not know if this thing was truly alive, or a construct, or of there was any thoughts within its mind- -but she had a feeling that there were. By some kind of instinct, she seemed to know that it could teleport to its destination, if it wanted to. It simply did not want to: it wanted to walk, just as its twin had, leaving a trail of destruction in its wake.

Thebe’s golem looked down from the fractioning tower, and moved follow, to see where it truly was going- -but Thebe suddenly found that her construct was unable to move. She rotated her range of view, and suddenly the golem’s vision was filled with the sight of a black mask with a pair of wide, luminescent eyes. Thebe looked down, and saw that its fist had broken through the golem. Her mind scrambled to understand what was happening: how it had seen its pursuer, and how it had so easily broken through the dimensional bubble, or managed to wound something that was meant to be intangible.

She looked back and saw that that the creature was still walking. For a moment, she wondered if they were different, if the one who had attacked her was a separate entity, one who had struck while she had been distracted watching the other. Then she saw the space around the one walking away from her shift and flicker. Thebe instantly recognized the spell: it had just jumped backward in time.

The golem was losing power quickly. Unlike its siblings, it was mostly constructed of magic, which the creature seemed to somehow be syphoning off. The creature seemed to have torn through the special field, moving across time and polydimensional space as though it were walking through air, without even hesitating.

The golem flickered out of existence. Just before it went, Thebe felt its final transmission: its confusion, not knowing why it was hurt, and its sudden fear as it faced unavoidable death. Then it was gone. There had not even been time to attempt to rescue it.

That was, of course, not a problem. Thebe could always make more. The only unfortunate aspect was that she was sure to lose her lock on the creature now. That, though, was also not a problem: there would be more. Thebe was not a fool. She knew how they reproduced, at least in general. They spread by an infection, one that existed as a kind of magic that even she was unfamiliar with. It had been fully within her capacity to quarantine the city, to prevent he infected from leaving- -but she had not. To do so would be illogical and counterproductive to progress. She had even taken steps to isolate the one uninfected survivor, having members of one of her shell corporations take him away so that he could not interfere.

The infection would spread. It had to. All those who fell to it would be cease to be ponies; instead, they would be converted into these creatures. Thebe had decided to allow this, to ensure that she had a surplus of test subjects. The ponies that changed were already condemned to death by their mortality; having them serve a benefit to an immortal would give them at least the vestige of a true purpose. Equestria would burn, and Thebe would watch over the flames, allowing them to spread and grow. When, once again, nothing remained except ashes, she would simply rebuild, herself smarter, better, and eternal.

This was the only logical course of action, and Thebe had no doubts in her mind of its course. The hunt would continue.

Chapter 26: The Gates of 616

View Online

Rainbow Dash looked out over the world below her. From above, it looked so small. She saw the continents below, and the oceans of Equestria. She saw the green of the forests and grasslands and swamps- -and the deserts that now covered so much of the planet, their leading edge stained pink with the ever-encroaching advancement of the future.

She looked out at the horizon, and at the endless yellow sky above her. Beneath the strange light, she spread her wings and saw the glint of the golden metal surround her. In her mind, she realized that something was wrong. She knew what Twilight had said, that she needed to pull out of the dive, to correct to horizontal and activate the magical engines, but there were no magical engines. It was just her, alone in the sky- -and she knew that this was her last flight. That she would not pull up. She would not survive.

And, strangely, she was content with that outcome- -if only because she knew something that they did not.

“Is she dead?”

Rainbow Dash felt herself kicked firmly.

“No. She shall experience liver damage, though.”

“Satin…she drank the whole bottle?”

“It was only a matter of time.”

“To what?”

“Futureshock. Failure to thrive in a world of inadequate primativity.”

“Is that even a word?”

“Of course it is. I just said it.”

Rainbow Dash felt a prick in her neck, and moaned loudly.

“Why do you even have that stuff? You can’t drink alcohol.”

“No, but I can take it IV. And Rainbow Dash was anticipated to have addictive tendencies.”

“Ohhh,” moaned Rainbow Dash, suddenly feeling a sharp pain in her head as the effects of the alcoholic stupor began to wear off, leaving her once again with the soul-crushing pain of her mental situation. “Pinkie Pie…stop being so loud.”

Rainbow Dash opened her eyes, and saw that the face she was staring into was not Pinkies. Instead, it belonged to a gray-coated bat pony with big blue eyes and large, fuzzy ears, one of them pierced with three rings.

“Pinkie Pie had her head bashed in four hundred years ago,” said Five. “Now wake up and smell the future.”

Rainbow Dash sat up suddenly, and nearly vomited. The effects of the alcohol had been removed, but whatever had been injected into her had left her dizzy and hung over. “What happened to Pinkie Pie?” she said, grabbing Five by the straps that she always seemed to be wearing. “What did you just say?”

“I said nothing. You may be hallucinating.”

“I- -am? Am I really back in Ponyville?”

“Nope,” said Gell.

The whole room shook, exacerbating Rainbow Dash’s sense of illness, and she fell over, landing between the seat and the table, which was where she had apparently been lying before being forced back into reality.

“Oh, my head,” said Rainbow Dash. “What happened?”

“You just drank,” said Five. “A rather large amount, actually.”

“Kind of impressive, actually,” said Gell.

“Do not encourage this kind of behavior.”

“I’m not,” said Gell. Rainbow Dash felt a pair of cloven hooves on her shoulder, and then felt herself being picked up. She found herself staring directly into the yellow eyes of a demon. “Do you know what a stenaethax worm is?” Rainbow Dash shook her head. “Then don’t let me have to make you find out. You’re like, what, twenty? Dashie, you’re too young for this sort of horse manure…”

“Can you…can you not swear?”

“No,” said Gell. “Satin does not approve.”

“Wait…you mean the pony devil doesn’t let you swear?”

“Nope. And you do not want to have her wash your mouth out with soap.” Gell leaned closer. “Because she makes it from your own fat. You know, when your still alive.” Gell poked Rainbow Dash in the ribs, causing her to twitch and giggle involuntarily. “Not that a sexy beast like you has much soap in you.”

“The owl is staring at us,” said Five.

Rainbow Dash looked to her right. The owl was, indeed, staring at them.

“Can you put me down?” said Rainbow Dash. “I’m feeling…queasy.”

“No time for queasy,” said Five. “We’re here.”

“Here?”

“Yes.”

“That fast?”

“It’s been, like, two days.”

“Two days?!”

“Equestria is large,” said Five. “It took six hours alone to get to the station within the city.”

Five and Gell stood up, and Philomena flew up, perching on the tip of one of Gell’s horns.

“Are you departing, owl?” asked Five.

“In 616? I’m not that crazy,” said the owl. “I’m riding this iron horse straight back to Unst.”

“Perhaps we should go there next,” said Five to Gell.

“No way. It’s rainy there.”

Rainbow Dash picked herself up, and found that even her robotic limbs were shaking. Whatever Five had injected into her, however, was rapidly consuming her hangover, forcing her back into full consciousness. Rainbow Dash braced for pain, but found that it was weaker, if only by a little. Two days of sleep had improved her condition slightly.

“Hey, An,” said Gell.

“Don’t call me that,” said Five.

“I forget. Is 616 one of those drawn and quartering for littering towns, or is it one of the leather and tire-fire types?”

“Level hierarchy,” said Five.

“Oh yeah. I hate those,” said Gell.

“What does that mean?” asked Rainbow Dash.

“It means don’t mess with politicians, and you will be fine,” said Five.

“And if I do?”

“Sudden death.”

The train station itself was larger than anything Rainbow Dash had ever seen. She had thought that the last one was large, but this one dwarfed it by far. It had been built to accommodate multiple trains, and they were unloaded and loaded by a number of machines that moved freight at impossible speeds.

For a moment, Rainbow Dash forgot her fears and pain as she looked at the bustling of activity around her, at the hundreds of thousands of ponies around her. Not all were ponies, though, which was what surprised her. There were earth ponies, Pegasi, and unicorns, of course, but there were also so many more: donkeys, zebras, mules, sheep, cows, goats, llama, owls, griffons, equidroids, and several well-dressed ahuizotl and minotaurs. At one point, she even thought she saw a pair of centaurs.

Something about the structure of the station seemed to cause her a degree of panic, though. At first she could not place it. It was not the crowds, or the multitude of languages and strange beings that walked around her, many dressed in strange somber clothing and others with pieces of their bodies replaced with machines. Nor was it the heavy machines transporting goods at impossible speed and accuracy, or the small automated carts that pushed through the crowds.

After several minutes, she realized that it was from the fact that she could not see the sky. The station itself was closed, or somehow underground, like a system of solid pipes containing hundreds of trains. That was what bothered her, as it should have bothered all Pegasi, even though those around her seemed not to care.

The ceilings were high, though, and Rainbow Dash was able to stretch her wings, if only to float over the crowd near Gell and Five. Gell seemed somewhat agitated by the crowd around her, but even with her cloak and hood, the other ponies stayed a significant distance away from her. Five seemed relatively indifferent, as always.

Then, after what felt like forever, they reached a gate- -and Rainbow Dash realized that despite all their walking, they were still not in the city itself.

Rainbow Dash stared up at the gate. It was huge, but that was not what drew her attention. Rather, it was the strange bipedal statue standing to one side, its body made of thick metal and stone, its burning red eyes staring down at the crowd. Its size alone was immense; it stood at least thirty feet high. That was not the only part of that was disturbing, though. Rather, it was its presence alone, the fact that somehow Rainbow Dash instinctively knew that it was not a statue. She shivered at the sight of the steel giant, at its four clawed arms and angular armor, and at the long, curved horn protruding from its forehead.

“What is that?” she said, afraid to approach it.

“A Theben golem,” said Five. “Really don’t mess with those. Don’t even get near.”

“Pigs on our seven,” muttered Gell.

“Well isn’t that great,” replied Five, her eyes narrowing.

Rainbow Dash turned, fully expecting to see pigs- -but what she saw instead were a pair of large ponies dressed in hard black armor approaching them.

“Hey you!” they said, one of them flashing a badge. “You! Stop!”

“Is there a problem?” asked Five, turning toward the ponies.

“Display your immigration protocol,” one of them demanded, his green eyes narrowing on Five.

“I do not need one,” said Five. “I am only here to visit the Museum.”

“Yes, you do,” said the other guard. Rainbow Dash guessed that he was a unicorn, although his black helmet- -which seemed to be made of some kind of plastic- -covered his horn.

“Since when?”

“Since you bats started busting into our city and stinking it up,” said the other, probably an Earth pony. “Filth like you needs approval to enter here.”

“Hey!” said Rainbow Dash. “You can’t talk to her like that!”

“Quiet, Blue!” said the unicorn, pushing Rainbow Dash back. “You’re lucky we don’t ask you for papers. And because you actually look reasonably good,” he opened up a hologram from a device attached to his upper foreleg, floating it near his face, “we’re not going to bother to ask you about your missing prostitution license either. Now step back. Or I’ll have the golem step on you.”

“Excuse me?” cried Rainbow Dash, suddenly flustered. “I’m not- -why would you- -”

Gell put her hoof on Rainbow Dash’s shoulder.

“Calm down,” she said. She turned toward the pair of guards, and they looked up at her as if they were expecting a fight. One of them reached for his side-arm.

“By the eternal treaty between Blackest Night and Satin Veil, I believe I am exempt from your mortal laws,” she said, slowly. “And I am within my right to take these two into the city, if that is my wish.”

The unicorn took a step forward. “Who’s command are you under, demon?” he asked.

“I serve no commander,” said Gell, sounding somewhat insulted.

“Well,” said the guard. “Then we have a problem. Cause the laws do apply to half breeds. And vermin like you aren’t even allowed in at all! Now get back on that train, and get out of our city!”

Rainbow Dash suddenly felt a strange sensation, as if all the tiny blue hairs on her body were standing on edge. She suddenly felt afraid, and instinctively took several steps away from Gell, who seemed to be exuding evil itself.

Gell reached up, and pulled back her hood. Rainbow Dash could see that she was smiling, but that she was not at all happy. The smaller of the two guards, the earth pony, took a step back.

“You,” growled Gell. “Turn around.”

“Half-breed mule! You have no right to- -”

“Turn. Around.”

They both shrunk back from her, and so did Rainbow Dash. Something in her voice had changed. It was filled with something not wholly identifiable. It sounded something like anger, but that was hardly it. There was another part to it, something that made Rainbow Dash’s wings instinctively tingle. Gell’s voice, she realized, was dripping not just with rage but with uncontrollable lust.

The earth pony did so, and Rainbow Dash saw that he was crying, but could somehow not resist the command.

“Now lift your tail to your tail to me,” whispered Gell.

“Captain,” pleaded the stallion. “Please help me. Don’t let her…” he trailed off into sobs as he lifted his tail, exposing himself.

Gell’s reaction was swift, almost faster than Rainbow Dash could even see. There was a flash of pink, and a momentary expression of pure agony on the guard’s face as his eyes nearly swelled out of his face. There was a sound of hoof hitting flesh, and then the guard was flying, screaming at an impossibly high octave, tumbling as he went. He then struck the golem, which only watched as he slid down its armor and collapsed into a heap below it, holding his crotch and weeping.

“Now you,” said Gell, leaning closer to the remaining guard, who was standing in a puddle of his own urine. “Know this. I am a female of my kind, daughter of Heresy Immolation, who is daughter of Endless Slain. I serve no commander save for Satin Veil herself. My blood is pure, given to me by the Goddess of Perversion herself. For your insult, I should force-feed you your own genitals and force you to lick my plot hole while I hoof your wife until she screams her undying love for me. But I was in a good mood today. So you get to stay intact, and know that it was your fault that your partner will never have children.”

“Ye- -yes, mistress,” he said, bowing.

“Come on, An,” she said, putting her hood back on. “I need to calm down a bit…”

Rainbow Dash watched the pair of them walking away, and then looked at the pair of guards. The unicorn had now collapsed onto the ground, breathing heavily. The other was still crushing his ruined testicles while a crowd formed around him, watching, but not one of them offering any help. Rainbow Dash momentarily wanted to run, to fly as fast and far as she could- -but instead felt herself walking forward.

“I’m sorry you had to see that side of me, Dashie,” said Gell when Rainbow Dash got close. “Lost my cool.” Then, to herself. “Why couldn’t they be mares?”

“It was impressive, though,” said Five.

“But won’t we be in trouble now?” asked Rainbow Dash. “I mean, you did just attack the guards.”

“They’re private rent-a-cops,” said Five. “Nopony cares if several are castrated. Besides. Having no balls is not a problem. I have none, and I feel fine.”

“But you’re a mare.”

“Exactly. And now so is he.”

“My actions were within the law,” said Gell. “Problem is, now I am incredibly horny. You’re even starting to look attractive, An, and that’s bad.”

“Rainbow Dash,” said Five. “Would you help her out with that?”

“What?! I- -”

“Don’t try to coerce her,” said Gell. “This wouldn’t be as good as a mare like her deserves.” She looked down at Rainbow Dash and smiled. “Don’t worry. I’ll be fine in a few minutes.” She looked back to Five. “However, I am going to need to take a trip to the lower levels before this is over.”

“Eew. Don’t tell me that.”

“Oh, come on. If anypony in Equestria needs to get laid more than I do, it’s you. And don’t tell me you can’t, because I know you can!”

“Can we…can we not talk about this?” said Rainbow Dash, trying to suppress her wings from bursting to full extension. “I’m feeling really uncomfortable.”
; “Sorry,” said Gell.

“I’m not,” said Five.

They stopped talking for a moment, and so did Rainbow Dash. The outside of the gate did not seem to pass directly into any city, but rather into a long and massive concrete tunnel lit by harsh lights above. On both sides, the crumbling structure was covered with graffiti, which, like all things in this world, was impossible for Rainbow Dash to read, aside from one word that kept repeating in numerous designs: “Vale”.

Rainbow Dash was about to ask what that meant when they reached the end of the tunnel- -and all the words she could possibly ask caught inside her brain like a ball of tangled yarn.

In her life, she had seen cities. Her occupation as a Wonderbolt had brought her across all of Equestria. She had seen the largest cities of the world, from Manehattan to Tokaro, and spent a significant amount of time in the Pegasus capital Cloudsdale as well as the national capital Canterlot. They were huge, bustling, and sprawling- -but nothing compared to this.

The heights of the buildings surrounding her were dizzying- -but they were not even really buildings. They were diverse and different in construction and style, but so close together that they resembled heterogeneous walls stretching upward thousands of feet, their structures rusting in the fetid air but stretching out and meshing as though they were alive. They were fused by bridges and walkways and streets that stretched seemingly forever upward, and even then Rainbow Dash could not see the sky, but rather the darkened steel and glass of buildings even higher, perhaps miles away and behind the ones she stared up at.

She looked around her, and saw an impossible number of ponies and creatures of all kinds, filling the streets, all walking rapidly toward destinations of some kind. They were not alone, though: the streets below them were filled with rapidly moving vehicles: motorcycles, as she had seen in Appleloosa, as well as carts that were not drawn by any pony.

A roaring sound above her caused her to look up again- -and she saw a set of metal-clad airships pulling their way through the vast airspace over the street, surrounded by contingents of griffons and owls who filled the sky.

“What the fu- -” Rainbow Dash felt the slap of a cloven hoof smartly against the back of her head.

“What did I just tell you?” said Gell. “Satin hates swearing.”

“Sorry. It’s just that…are we indoors?”

“It’s a city,” said Five, motioning for them to follow her through the crowded sidewalk beneath the curving buildings that seemed to lean over them, forming only the narrowest of spaces over the walkways. “Of course it’s indoors.”

“But how…how big is this?”

Five extended her claws, and held two of them together a tiny distance apart. “You know how big the Pocket is?”

“No.”

“Well, imagine filling it up with a model where the ponies were of that size. And not just on the floor. Filling all the space.”

“That phrase is not helping me,” said Gell.

“You’re a lespony,” said Five. “You’re space never gets filled.”

“Not comfortable!” cried Rainbow Dash, covering her ears.

“Too sensitive. B.N. was right, you are a prude. Anyway, population here is…” She checked a hologram. “Three billion registered.”

“Three…billion?!”

“That’s actually rather small,” said Five. “Considering that Equestria’s population is over eighty nine billion right now.”

“That’s a lot of ponies!”

“Well,” said Gell, “you guys are really good at breeding.”

“And Gell has only mated with three quarters of them,” noted Five.

“Oh!” said Gell, leaping forward to Five. “Somepony just made a joke!”

“Yes. Yes I did.”

The crowd suddenly seemed to become pushy, and Rainbow Dash was momentarily separated from the pair. She spread her wings and leapt into the air. As she did, several ponies below her jumped back, and others stared up in awe, pointing and hindering traffic.

“Wow,” said Rainbow Dash, catching up easily to Five and Gell. “I didn’t realize I had this many fans!”

“They’re not fans,” said Five. “They are just surprised to see a pony flying.”

“Flying? But I’m a Pegasus. It’s what we do.”

“You have been gone a while,” said Gell. “Here,” she said, looking out into the crowd. She pointed toward a young red colored Pegasus stallion who was approaching them. “Watch this.”

She jumped forward, causing the crowd to scatter. She pulled down her hood and pointed at the Pegasus.

“YOU!” she said. “I’m gonna put your face on my face and say ‘hi’ to your mother!”

“Noooooo!” cried the Pegasus, turning to run. As he galloped away, his wings seemed to shudder involuntarily. Instead of allowing him to take flight, though, they pulled him to one side and tipped him over. As they buzzed and fluttered, he was drawn in wide circles across the ground, crying in fear as the other ponies around him snapped pictures. “But I don’t even play Borderlands!”

“What- -what was that?” cried Rainbow Dash.

“Hilarious,” said Gell.

“No. I mean what’s wrong with him?”

“Nothing,” said Five. “It’s just that the vast majority of Pegasi lack the ability to fly.”

“But- -but they’re Pegasi!” She dropped from the air and reached down to help the pony up. Instead of accepting her hoof, however, he recoiled, blushing deeply, his wings suddenly flapping much harder.

“Get- -get away from me!” he cried, scrambling to his feet and lurching off into the crowd even as his wings continued to try to pull him over.

“It’s a lost art,” said Five, “especially for those developed in cities, especially those in the lower levels. There is little motive to lean to fly when machines can do it so much better. And, it is another reason why my kind are so hated.”

“And back to mopey An,” said Gell. She crossed through the crowd- -most of them getting out of her way- -and approached a cordoned off section where the pavement of the sidewalk had been removed, apparently by wear. Rainbow Dash took flight and approached it- -and realized, to her dizzying amazement, that it led to dimly lit depths below the street, to large and deeper levels.

“How- - how deep does this place go?” asked Rainbow Dash.

“No idea,” said Gell. “But the lower levels are where the fun happens. After you go to your museum, you should come down.”

“Don’t,” whispered Five, her voice clear over the noise of the streets.

“Hey, get away from there!” cried a work-pony in a shiny yellow vest.

“I’ll meet you in a few hours,” said Gell. Philomena jumped from her horn and flew over to Rainbow Dash. “And I’m taking a thousand bits from the account.”

“Hey!” said Five. “That’s my money!”

“Consider it my salary for having to put up with you. I also may borrow my gun.”

“Aim for the head.”

Gell smiled mischievously. “I always do.” She turned to Rainbow Dash. “Until then, we part ways, my dear Dashie.”

Without hesitation, she suddenly jumped into the hole, falling through it and into the depths beyond. Rainbow Dash moved to save her, but Five stopped her.

“Let her go,” said Five.

“But the fall- -”

“She’s a demon. They’re durable.”

Rainbow Dash looked back at the hole. The workpony, now dreadfully confused, was staring into it. Rainbow Dash turned back to Five. “What exactly is she going to do on those lower levels?”

“Hmm,” said Five. “Let’s just say that a lot of mares are going to be very sore tomorrow.”

Rainbow Dash shivered, but continued to walk with Five through the streets. As she did, though, she suddenly felt a tap on her side. She turned, expecting to see a fan of some kind, but instead saw a disheveled looking pony in a long coat.

“How much?” he asked.

“How much for what?” asked Rainbow Dash, confused.

“You know,” he said. Before Rainbow Dash could stop him, he reached up to her rump and flipped up her tail, bending over to take a look, smiling. “In fine condition I see. Must be- -”

“What the hay!!” screamed Rainbow Dash, bucking him in the face with her cybernetic rear leg so hard that he was flung backward with enough force to knock over several passerbies. Rainbow Dash spread her wings as if to fly, but found herself lowering her haunches, her tail pressed between her legs, extremely embarrassed. “Why would you even do that?!” she demanded.

“You just have to make things of difficulty,” muttered Five, grabbing Rainbow Dash’s leg and pulling her into the crowd.

“Let me go!” cried Rainbow Dash, partially regaining her composure. “I should beat that guy to a pulp for doing that to me! The sick freak!”

“No, you won’t,” said Five, sternly. “It’s okay when Gell is here- -she has a kind of diplomatic semi-immunity. I don’t. I’m a chiropteran. They will kill me for something like this.”

“But it’s not your fault! The pervert lifted my tail, just like that! And…and you can’t even die!”

“The point still stands.”

Five led Rainbow Dash through the street for several minutes, and then suddenly took flight, taking them several hundred feet in the air to a higher level, one that wrapped and entwined buildings, one of which, much to Rainbow Dash’s surprise, seemed to have been build a long time ago around a much larger version of the type of golem that they had seen before.

“This should be good,” said Five, leaning against a façade of one of the buildings across from the red-eyed golem and the buildings perched on its shoulders, as though it had been their foundation for decades of even centuries.

“Care to explain what it Celestia’s name just happened to me?”

“That stallion mistook you a sex worker.”

“What’s a sex worker?”

Five stared blankly. “Really?”

“It doesn’t sound good, though.”

“Hold still.” Five lifted one of her hooves and extended a claw to Rainbow Dash’s forehead, causing the latter’s eyes to cross. Five’s eyes glinted green and the defintition- -as well as several pictures, apparently taken from Five’s youth, many of them involving Gell in a pile of mares- -appeared in Rainbow Dash’s head.

“Eeeeeewwwww!” she cried, covering her eyes. “I’m not- -I’m not that kind of filly!”

“Hey!” snapped Five, her eyes narrowing. “Don’t say it like that. It’s a hard enough job without you looking down upon them. They’re ponies too, you realize. They have hopes and dreams, just as you. And not all of us get good special talents like flying abnormally fast.”

“I’m- -I’m sorry,” said Rainbow Dash, still blushing. “But they do- -they do that for bits?”

“Don’t pretend like it did not occur in your own time.”

“But it didn’t- -”

“It did. It’s just legal now.”

“You seem to be defending them an awful lot,” said Rainbow Dash, her mind slowly recovering. “You weren’t- -” She gasped. “You were!”

“And this must be how you felt about twenty minutes ago. Annnnd poetic justice. But no. I was not. Neither was Gell, but she has many friends who were and are. They have helped us when times were harder. They are members of a very short list of ponies who I generally avoid administering pain upon.”

“You make it sound like you would kill them,” chucked Rainbow Dash.

“I would kill Gell if I could figure out how,” said Five with absolute seriousness.

“Okay,” said Rainbow Dash, backing away.

“But that isn’t the question,” said Five. “Not the one you asked. The reason why you have been, and will continue to be, confused as a prostitute is because of your coat color.”

“I’m blue,” said Rainbow Dash. “Well, actually cyan, I guess. What’s wrong with that?”

“History. After the Second Choggoth War, blue ponies were considered an inferior breed.”

Rainbow Dash remembered. During the invasion of Equestria by the Choggoth D27, massive riots had ensued while ponies attempted to capture the shapeshifter, who inevitably manifested as a blue pony- -attacking the rest of the “Blues” in the process. “But we fixed that,” said Rainbow Dash. “With the Elements of Harmony!”

“Says the last living Element. And you cannot kill racism. Blues were denied jobs, housing, even basic rights. Eventually, the unicorns responded with a spell that could change phenotype in utero. Blue-coated ponies were eventually rendered nearly extinct.

“That was many years ago, before that golem even started standing there. Since then, there has been a mild renaissance. You are now considered exotic. It does not help that the majority of Blues surviving are of great poverty. They lacked funds to pay for the procedure.”

“That sucks,” said Rainbow Dash, sitting against the corrosion-stained wall behind her. “It just…sucks.”

“Admittedly, for Zero-Level, that one’s actions were extremely rude. That should not happen in the future, assuming you avoid the lower levels.”

“It’s not me I’m thinking about,” said Rainbow Dash.

Five seemed confused. “Who, then?”

“The others. Soarin, and Twilight’s dad, that guy who makes the moonshine- -hay, half of Ponyville was blue.”

“They have been dead for centuries. They care little now.”

“That’s not the point! They were all unique, and all great ponies. That ponies would just look at them and assume like that…I know they’re dead.” She sighed deeply. “I know that. But it’s like they’re kicking mud on all my friend’s memories.”

“I see. Or rather, fail to. The emotions you portray are beyond my comprehension.”

“I know,” sighed Rainbow Dash. “I know…” She suddenly felt a strong thirst for alcohol.

“It appears I have depressed you,” said Five.

“I’m a Wonderbolt,” said Rainbow Dash, standing up. “I don’t get ‘depressed’!”

“You were a Wonderbolt. They disbanded centuries ago…and I am making it worse. Hold on.” She dug through one of her miniature saddle bags. Rainbow Dash momentarily saw the glint of a gun under her wing.

“Here,” said Five, passing something to Rainbow Dash with her teeth. Rainbow Dash took it in her mechanical hoof. Rainbow Dash turned it over, and saw that it was a pair of plastic glasses, the fronts of them tinted with a metallic color with two decals of spirals on them.

“I don’t think these are going to cheer me up much,” she said, trying to pass them back to Five.

“Put them on,” said Five, waving them away. “I think you will like the result.”

“Alright,” said Rainbow Dash. She did not see how a childish toy was going to help her, but she did not want to agitate Five. She slipped the glasses onto her nose. “I bet I look like a total- -”

She gasped as she looked around. She had expected the world to be colored some strange hue by the tinted glass, and to see the comical spirals in her vision. Instead, she saw clearly- -directly into ponies. She suddenly found herself looking at a horde of skeletons, as though she had fallen into the middle of some abnormally well-orchestrated Nightmare Night celebration.

“I- -I can see their bones!” she cried out, laughing. “This is so cool!”

Rainbow dash looked down at her hooves. One of them, her metal one, appeared as a mass of machine parts moving like nearly microscopic clockwork in response to her will. The other showed her internal bones- -and she was surprised to see that, beneath their hooves, ponies actually had something sort of resembling a hand.

She looked up at Five, and instead of seeing a cynically stone-faced bat pony saw herself instead looking into a wide-eyed skull. “You’re a skeleton!” laughed Rainbow Dash. “Hey, Five, you look like you need to put on some weight.”

“Funny,” said Five, Rainbow Dash watching her jaw moving. Five turned, and Rainbow Dash momentarily saw an unusual number of items inside her body. Some were in her pouches, but others looked like large pieces of shrapnel imbedded in her body. Five pointed. “Two o’clock, range ten meters,” she said.

Instinctively, Rainbow Dash zeroed in on the position that Five had listed- -and saw something even more amazing.

“What is that?” said Rainbow Dash. She reached up and removed the glasses. Without them, she saw an ordinary looking pale-coated unicorn stallion wearing the upper half of a suit laughing alongside a similarly dressed mare. When she put the glasses on, though, Rainbow Dash saw something vastly different from the normal skeletons. Instead of bones, his body seemed to instead consist of a number of grotesque interlocking plates around internal, tube-like structures.

Rainbow Dash looked around, and saw that he was not alone. In the crowd, there were several ponies with the same internal appearance. One was a donkey standing at a vending cart. Another was an earth pony staring of the railing down at the street below. A third was one of a group of workponies seeming to contemplate something about a nearby structure.

“What are they?” asked Rainbow Dash.

“Changelings,” said Five.

“Changelings?!” said Rainbow Dash, loudly. She spread her wings, preparing for attack.

“Not so loudly,” said Five. “Calm down.”

“But- -changelings!”

“They make up almost five percent of the population.”

“Is it- -is it an invasion?”

“No,” said Five, slowly. “They just live here. Like every other pony.”

“So they’re not plotting anything evil?”

“Why would they be?”

“In my time they nearly took over Equestria!”

“Um…no. I was there. Sort of. That was actually an attempt to assassinate the Anomaly. By Celestia.”

“What the hay are you talking about?”

“Ten, fifty degrees high, range eight meters.”

In the middle of her question, Rainbow Dash turned her head, almost without realizing it. She expected to see another changeling, but instead she saw a skeleton that clearly belonged to neither a pony nor a changeling. She immediately recognized it as a griffon. Something was strange about it, though. There was something other than bones present in its body, a pale stream of pink colored light inside its body, coiled like a worm, one end of it reaching up to the griffon’s skull.

Rainbow Dash watched as the griffon passed overhead, and for a moment she saw it look down at her, its skeletal eye sockets nearly dripping with pink energy, as though it knew she was watching. Then it dropped to the lower level as a narrow airship passed.

“That is far rarer,” said Five.

“A griffon? But there are tons of griffons- -”

“You should have seen something inside.”

“Yeah,” said Rainbow Dash. “A long thing.” She slid off the glasses and turned to Five. “What was that?”

“That was an Incurse.”

“In-curse?” said Rainbow Dash. She recalled having heard the word several times. “I almost know what that is.”

“You should. You met one.”

“When did I do that?”

“Flesh’s riding mare. She was one.”

Rainbow Dash recalled the broken looking, leather-clad mare that the pervert unicorn in Appleoosa had kept around him. “What…what exactly is one of these ‘Incurse’?”

“Parasites,” said Five. “Loosely. They are a type of living spell. They infect the dead or dying, stealing their memories and making a new mind for them to live on in.”

“I heard ponies talking about a war with them.”

“There was. It was very long and very bloody. My mother spent most of her life as a soldier in that war.”

“Well, you don’t seem very bothered by seeing one.”

“I am not. Because not all Incurse are the enemies of ponies. But I am one of few who believes this. As the changelings, their existence here is largely a secret.”

“Oh,” said Rainbow Dash, suddenly realizing that she was privy to a secret that even the future ponies that surrounded her did not even know. That made her feel better, somehow. “So it’s like spy stuff then…”

“Not at all.”

Rainbow Dash continued to look around, admiring the skeletons and watching for more Incurse. She saw several more changelings out of the hundreds of ponies, but no ponies with the characteristic- -and slightly grotesque- -spell living inside them. “Where did you even get these?” she asked.

“I ordered them out of the back of a comic book.”

“No way. Did you make them?”

“I was serious. Not an ordinary comic, though. At one point, Gell and I were pulled within the pages of one.”

“No way!” cried Rainbow Dash. “The same thing happened to me!”

Five’s skull stared at Rainbow Dash. “Really? Was that common in the past?”

“No, it was something Spike bought. I got to be Zapp, and it was awesome!” Rainbow Dash paused. “Which comic did you get?”

“I would rather not say.”

Rainbow Dash smiled widely. “It wasn’t…”

“Don’t say it.”

“Batpony?”

Five sighed. “Yes. Yes it was. I was batpony, and Gell was the Robin.”

“You as batpony!” Rainbow Dash laughed so hard she collapsed onto the ground. “It’s perfect! All dark and spooky- -‘I am the night!’- -HA!”

“It was ridiculous. The thing wouldn’t even allow the use of guns, and Gell ended up having relations with Catmare. And the Jester’s sidekick. At the same time.”

“Talk about the colt-wonder!” said Rainbow Dash, recovering from her fit of laughter, which promptly restarted with a loud snort when she realized what she had just said.

“I will admit, though…It was amusing to not have to be one of them, for once…”

Rainbow Dash leaned back against the wall and looked out at the crowd. “I wouldn’t know. I love being me. I wish I still could be.”

“You still are.”

“Hey,” said Rainbow Dash, changing the subject. “That really big golem. Is it on?”

“If by ‘on’ you mean active, yes. It is. Thebe has just mot moved it in a great while. They do not expire.”

“Oh. That explains the colors.”

“Colors?”

Rainbow Dash felt the glasses snatched from her nose.

“Hey!” she said.

Five put them on her own face and stared at the six-hundred foot tall goliath across the way. “I don’t see anything,” she said. “What did you see?”

“Lines, sort of,” said Rainbow Dash. “And…circles?”

Five have Rainbow Dash the glasses back. “Describe it. Carefully, please.”

“Fine,” said Rainbow Dash, putting the glasses back on. She looked back at the golem and allowed her eyes to focus on the chains of light that seemed to be passing through its body. “Yeah,” she said. “Lines. Kind of…curvy, like that BNA stuff Twilight kept talking about.”

“DNA,” corrected Five. “You mean double helicies?”

“Yeah, but others. Flat lines and balls and stuff, all kind of moving.”

“What color are they?”

“Red. Really red. Like glowing blood.”

“That shouldn’t be possible,” muttered Five.

“What?”

“Do you know what you are seeing.”

“Yes, clearly,” said Rainbow Dash sarcastically. “Of course I do.”

“What you are seeing is the golem’s source code!”

“And that means…what?”

“It means you just somehow cracked widely one of the most advanced security systems in Equestria. Nopony sees Thebe’s code. I don’t know why you can see it, but if only I could. Just a fraction is worth several billion bits.”

“For those squiggles?”

Rainbow Dash felt the glasses being plucked off her face again. “Yes. Because if somepony had that, they could hack the golem, and that one alone could level this city in a blink.”

“But that would be really bad, wouldn’t it?”

“Not if I’m the one selling the code, no. But it’s actually best not to pursue this.”

“Why?”

“Because if the golem catches you, well…it ends well for nopony.”

“I think I could take that thing,” said Rainbow Dash, standing up.

“That is a good spirit to have,” said Five. “Unless you act upon it. If you believe I am cruel, Thebe is worse. By far. Do not disturb the golems. Do not tempt fate.”

Rainbow Dash momentarily wondered what this Thebe pony might be like. For some reason, in her mind, she imagined an alicorn much like Celestia- -in fact, the one in her mind was Celestia- -but with spiky future-hair and heavy eyeliner. The image in her mind was almost comical.

“Come on,” said Five. “We have waited long enough.” She spread her wings. “Do you wish to take a flight to the museum?”

“It’s like you read my mind,” said Rainbow Dash. For some reason, though, she was terrified- -and not at all of the golem.

Chapter 27: The Museum

View Online

Rainbow Dash looked up at the building before her. In a way, she marveled at its size, even though it was smaller than the others around it by far. The endless skyscrapers had given way to a clear spot, a center dedicated to “smaller” buildings such as this. Somehow, though, the museum seemed larger. It was in part because of its sturdy stone structure, built to a kind of gothic architecture that was stunningly grotesque, and in part because even for a museum it was huge, with nearly fifty stories. More than that, though, it was what Rainbow Dash knew to be inside that terrified her.

“You’re not going in?” she said, turning to Five.

“Contrary to your belief, I do not live to serve you,” said Five. “I have business to attend to here.” Five raised her wing, lifting Philomena from her back. “My sister greatly enjoys the museum, however. She shall join you.”

“It’s weird how you call her ‘sister’,” said Rainbow Dash, accepting the bird onto her back.

“Also,” said Five, raising a hologram. “I am transferring one hundred bits to you.” The hologram morphed, and a digital image of a bit appeared between them, complete with a smiling image of Celestia’s face on the front. Rainbow Dash reached out and took it; as she did, it dissipated, apparently added to whatever her ‘account’ was. “I’m also giving you a translation program. As, apparently, they have failed to teach you to read.”

“I can read just fine,” protested Rainbow Dash.

“Old Equestrian, yes, which is a dead language. If you have errors, ask Philomena. She reads better than you.”

Before Rainbow Dash could protest, Five waved and stepped down the marble stairs to the museum. Rainbow Dash did not known what “business” Five had, but knew that she was probably better off not knowing.

She looked up at the museum and took a deep breath. “I don’t know about this. I don’t think this is a good idea.” Philomena warbled and poked Rainbow Dash in the back of the head. “You’re right,” said Rainbow Dash, her organic legs shaking. “I made a promise to them. I’m going to keep it. I have to know…”

From the distance, Five watched Rainbow Dash pause. For a time, she wondered if the mare would bother entering, or if she would just turn and run. Either outcome, of course, was acceptable; what Rainbow Dash did was not actually of consequence.

In her head, Five momentarily took bets on the outcome, but saw after several seconds that Rainbow Dash was as brave as the legends had suggested. Despite her pause, the Pegasus held her head high and joined the other patrons entering the museum.

Five waited for a moment. She needed Rainbow Dash to get out of the way. Their paths could not cross while they were inside, or else Rainbow Dash might become suspicious. Rainbow Dash was strangely naïve, but not unintelligent, and more importantly, she was excessively self-righteous. Five was certain that Rainbow Dash would neither understand nor agree with what she was intending to do, not just in the museum, but as a whole.

“Hey, bat!” said a voice. Five turned her head to see a police pony approaching her. “No loitering!”

Five narrowed her eyes and sent out a bolt of shadow into the pony’s consciousness. His eyes suddenly widened.

“Spiders!” he cried. “SO MANY SPIDERS! Get them off! GET THEM OFF!!”

He jumped around, tearing at his clothing and skin, trying to remove the imaginary spiders and finally fell into some nearby shrubbery, whimpering and crying out in fear while other ponies watched, many laughing.

“That should be long enough,” said Five. She shut down her illusion, but not before forcing all her imagined spiders to plunge their fangs into her target, causing him to scream out in agony while the ponies around him laughed even harder. Five then made her own way into the museum.

Rainbow Dash was not the greatest fan of museums. They had always seemed boring to her. As she looked around the grand lobby, though, she suddenly felt very small. It occurred to her that she was basically in a museum of the future, or at least what was the future to her.

There were some exhibits in the front hall, those chosen those designed to be impressive. They had a complete hydra skeleton, as well as several medieval suits of armor, holding their swords and pole-axes at the ready, alongside impressive pieces of crystal recovered from all over the land. There was even one case that contained something that resembled armor. As Rainbow Dash got closer, though, she realized that it was actually the fragments of something resembling a larger version of a Pegasus, made of silver. It felt vaguely familiar to Rainbow Dash, and she knew that it was the remains of a creature called an Argasi; she did not know where, but she assumed that she had read about it somewhere.

“Do you require any assistance?” asked a kindly voice from beside Rainbow Dash. Rainbow Dash turned, her mind expecting to see a uniformed, well-dressed museum attendant beside her. Instead, she saw a translucent blue hologram of a pony, the center of which was populated by a barely visible hovering winged machine.

“Hello,” said Rainbow Dash. “Um…are you a mare or stallion?”

“I am a female AI,” said the hologram, “thank you for your courtesy in asking. My name is Curator. I oversee primary functions in this facility. How may I assist you?”

“I was…um…I was looking for the exhibit about Twilight and Pinkie Pie and the others.”

“Are you referring to our Mane Six Exhibit?”

The pun in the name sounded terrible, but Rainbow Dash nodded.

“From your appearance, I have determined that it is likely that you are a fan of Rainbow Dash.”

“You could say that.”

Curator began walking- -or rather, hovering, considering her body was nothing more than light projected around a robotic drone- -and motioned for Rainbow Dash to follow. “Then you are in luck. The Equestria History Museum has recently acquired one of her Wonderbolt uniforms from a private collector. Many ponies do not realize it, but Wonderbolts actually were issued several custom-made uniforms.”

“Yeah,” said Rainbow Dash. “Three flightsuits, dress formals, battle gear, and a funerary uniform.” The last one made Rainbow Dash’s spirit fall. The funerary uniform was almost never used, but she realized that the others must have donned theirs at her own funeral.

“You are indeed knowledgeable,” said the AI, seemingly somewhat surprised. “Are you also aware that Rainbow Dash, in particular, had a sixth uniform?”

“Yeah,” said Rainbow Dash, feeling strange being quizzed about herself. “A high-altitude suit.”

“Which, unfortunately, was thought to be destroyed during her untimely demise.” An elevator door opened as Curator approached, and she motioned for Rainbow Dash to enter, then then followed herself. “However,” she said as the door closed. “And this is not public knowledge. I am only informing you because I myself am also a fan of Rainbow Dash. Recently, we purchased for a significant sum of money what our artifact-seekers believe to be fragments of the actual flight suit she died in.”

“How did you get that?” asked Rainbow Dash, confused. She had, after all, not died. She had jumped in time, and crashed with her suit still on. Then she realized it. “That bat!” she swore.

“We are currently attempting to confirm provenance,” said Curator. “But blood stains match genetic projections of R- -” Curator’s image suddenly flickered, her words catching like a damaged record. For just a fraction of a second, Rainbow Dash thought that she saw the holographic flesh of the hologram peel away and a large, exposed eye stare directly at her with a vertical pupil.

“- -ainbow Dash,” said Curator, her form stabilizing.

“Are you okay?” asked Rainbow Dash. “You just…flickered.”

“No anomalies are detected in my recorded code,” said Curator. “No interruption in service was detected.” She suddenly started smiling in a way that a museum tour-guide probably should not have. “Perhaps you hallucinated.”

Five moved through the lobby of the museum quickly, watching for Rainbow Dash. If Rainbow Dash were smart, she would have read the directory and proceeded toward the tenth floor- -or at the very least asked the AI how to get there.

That was not Five’s destination, however. She instead took a staircase downstairs. Few ponies bothered to use the stairs, and even fewer went to the basement. It was filled mostly with the museum’s collection of surplus taxidermy and small-scale models of buildings throughout the world, both of which were just as easily observed digitally.

As Five stepped off the staircase, a museum guard walked by in the opposite direction. She glared at her- -as all ponies tended to do- -but she pretended to ignore him, and instead feigned tripping.

“Get off me!” she said, loudly, pushing Five back with great force. “Stupid bat! Are you rabid or just drunk?”

“I slipped,” said Five, watching the earth pony squirm slightly, not realizing what was going on. For a pony with no real magic, this guard was surprisingly perceptive to the invasion of her mind- -but not enough to really realize what was happening.

“I’ve got my eye on you,” said the guard. “They shouldn’t even let skinwings like you in this place.”

“You have a nice day too,” said Five, adjusting the guard’s mind to give her a profound phobia of teacups. The two then parted.

Five had gotten what she wanted. When the guard was out of sight, she lifted her metal-clad hoof and examined the hacked information. She had stolen access codes to the employee section, but in addition, she had taken a mental blueprint of facility from the guard’s mind- -as well as the information on her bank accounts. Unicorns could usually sense Five’s ancestral magic, but earth ponies were inevitably oblivious.

Everything was going according to plan, but she knew that she needed to hurry.

As the elevator had risen, Rainbow Dash’s fear and apprehension rose inside her. She had felt a powerful desire to run, to fly, and to escape, something made impossible by the metal confines of the elevator and the unblinking watch of the holographic pony beside her. She increasingly realized what she was about to face: the truth. She would see that her friends had moved beyond her, and left her behind, that they somehow lived and died without her, thinking she was gone.

Fortunately, however, Curator had brought Rainbow Dash to the one exhibit that could not possibly make her feel that way- -her own. When Rainbow Dash stepped out of the elevator, she was suddenly surrounded by more Rainbow Dash memorabilia than she had been in her whole life- -it even dwarfed Scootaloo’s weird and supposedly secret shrine to her.

“Wow,” said Rainbow Dash, her smile growing at all the rainbows and blue that seemed to fill the large room. “Look at all my- -I mean all this stuff!”

“I thought you would like it,” said Curator, smiling. “Please enjoy the exhibits. Remember, there is not flying permitted in the museum. If you need me, my AI can be accessed through your personal software.”

“What did you just call me?” said Rainbow Dash. When she looked back, though, Curator was already gone, having wandered away to do museum tour-guide things, something that apparently did not involve giving tours.

That was annoying, but actually, Rainbow Dash preferred it. She wanted to take the exhibits at her own pace. Slowly, she ventured out into the only kind of museum she could truly appreciate- -one about her.

It was almost overwhelming. The first thing she was drawn to were the several glass cases elevated off the ground containing the skin-tight blue Wonderbolt uniforms that used to belong to her. They seemed old and faded, and probably no longer stretched like they once had, but they were definitely hers. She could see where the scratches and tears to them had been repaired almost perfectly.

They were not something that she had ever thought she would see again. She was suddenly struck by a profound desire to put them back on, as if it would take her back to what she had once been, to the world she had been stolen from- -but she realized that they would no longer fit. Two of her legs had been replaced with metal and gold-colored plating; there was no skin for the light, breathable fabric to coat. Even if she could be allowed to wear them once more, they would never fit over her left legs.

There were three main uniforms, just as she expected, with one being badly torn from a fall she had taken saving a cadet from spiraling out of control early on, as well as three others: the dress uniform, the armor plated battle unicorm, and the darker, ornately armored funerary uniform. The last one made her shudder, knowing that Soarin and Spitfire would have worn ones just like it when- -

She turned her attention instead to two more glass cases. Both of them, surprisingly, contained dresses: one was the highly embarrassing one that she had forced Rarity to make her, and the other the dress she had worn to Twilight’s coronation.

Rainbow Dash approached the coronation dress, blushing at the idea that she had worn something so girly, even though she had really liked wearing it. Beneath it, there was a picture taken that day, with her and her friends, all smiling.

A tear formed in the corner of her eye, and she wiped it away before anypony could notice. Not that there were many, though. Surprisingly few ponies bothered to come to the museum, and the crowd was sparse, mostly consisting of a few elderly ponies and an excited school group, many of them wearing rainbow-colored wigs. Rainbow Dash found herself wondering how many of them were changelings or Incurse.

She continued through the exhibit. There were a few other artifacts, most of them relatively mundane aspects of her life. One of the most chilling was a jar of feathers, some badly burnt, which she imagined were being displayed as her last remains.

The rest seemed to be art. Much of it was in traditional Pegasus propaganda style: it inevitably showed her souring forward, leading other Wonderbolts to glorious victory, or flying alone through storm clouds. Many of them were complete with captions, which, fortunately, were written in a language that Rainbow Dash could read. Many of them said what would be expected: a picture of her flying into the foreground, leaving her signature contrail behind her with the word “Dash to Victory” above her head, or a line of Wonderbolts standing on a cloud runway, all saluting the Equestrian and Pegasi flags with the words “Do you have what it takes to be a Wonderbolt?”

One of the pictures in the gallery caught Rainbow Dash’s attention more than the others, which, though cool, were foreign and strange to her. The picture she saw was smaller and somewhat faded, but still clearly showed her, dressed in black armor, complete with wingblades, glaring at the camera beside several other ponies, including an unarmored Soarin.
Rainbow Dash raised her metal hoof toward the caption under the photograph. “Um…translate?” she said. A hologram splashed in front of her, resolving into a square translucent page. Text immediately appeared on it, as if it knew what she were trying to read.

“Image, taken year 1005 Third Era (153BT): Rainbow Dash and comrades during the Second Choggoth War,” she read. The rest of the text when on to explain her role in the war. Most of it, much to Rainbow Dash’s surprise, was incorrect. It said that she had fought in the war, but that was not at all true- -she, like Soarin, had been excluded from battle because of their blue coat color. Not that there really had been a “war”, though. The way the plaque read, it made it sound like there had been some great and glorious conflict against the monstrous Choggoth D27, when in fact nopony had actually been able to engage D27 head on. The real war had been in the form of destructive riots that had torn Equestria apart. Rainbow Dash had only donned a soldier’s armor to seem stronger, as though she actually could fight.

And Soarin- -seeing a picture of him made her sad. The Choggoth War had destroyed him. His comrades had turned their backs on him because of his color, and although they restored him to his status as a full Wonderbolt after the war, he was never the same. At one time, he and Rainbow Dash had had a relationship, and though she could not claim that she had ever loved him, she cared about him, and even after the romantic aspect of their relationship crashed and burned they remained friends.

After several moments of standing still, remembering, Rainbow Dash felt a peck on her neck, and realized that Philomena was trying to get her attention. She looked down and saw a filly, one of the school group, staring up at her with wide eyes. Although the filly was a unicorn, her red-orange color distantly reminded Rainbow Dash of Scootaloo.

“Are you Rainbow Dash?” said the Filly.

“Yeah, I- -ow!” She felt Philomena’s claws dig into her back, and saw the bird’s disapproving glare. Rainbow Dash sighed. “I’m afraid that’s top secret,” she said.

“You have to be!” said the Filly, pointing at Rainbow Dash’s cutie mark. “You even have the right mark!”

“Sorry,” said Rainbow Dash, wiping away another tear. “But she’s been dead for a long, long time.”

“Oh,” said the filly, also looking sad. “But that’s okay.”

“It is?” said Rainbow Dash. She did not think it was okay at all.

“Yeah. Because Rainbow Dash is my hero! When I grow up, I’m going to be a flyer, just like she was! I’ll even do a sonic rainboom, without using any technology at all, just like she did!”

Rainbow Dash smiled. “Well, that’s really cool and all. And Rainbow Dash was a pretty good idol…but you kind of need- -”

The unicorn puffed out her cheeks and lowered her head. Her stubby horn glowed with several sparks of yellow light, and then, suddenly, a pair of translucent wings appeared on her back. The tiny filly immediately fluttered into the air, her trajectory awkward and crooked, her legs flailing as she tried to stabilize herself.

“By Celestia’s glowing rump!” cried Rainbow Dash. “You’re flying!”

“I am!” said the filly, spreading out her wings and flying- -sideways- -into a nearby wall.

“Hey you!” cried a Curator hologram, running over. “No flying in the museum!”

The filly only laughed as she fluttered off toward her school group.

Rainbow Dash turned to Philomena, unable to stop smiling. “So the Pegasi can’t get off the ground, but the unicorns are growing wings…this is one weird future.”

Philomena only shrugged.

Five moved quickly through the employee section of the museum. She was careful not to draw attention to herself, however. Almost immediately after using the guard’s access codes to enter, she had found her way to the supply closet and stolen a uniform. With her wings and ears covered, there was little left of her that resembled a normal chiropteran. She lacked the standard vertical pupils and exposed fangs, as well as the characteristic tail formation. With a janitor’s uniform on, she just looked like another gray-coated, blue-eyed pony.

That did not mean that she could walk around freely, though. Most of the ponies that she passed dismissed her as just another janitor on break, but some were suspicious. If Five encountered one of those, she was usually able to sway their mind- -but not for unicorns. If a unicorn were to look too closely at her, it would destroy her entire plan.

And that was not her only problem. Ponies were, by definition, idiots. AI’s, however, were not. The employee breakrooms and internal service hallways had few cameras. Five’s research had determined that the museum used a Curator model AI, which meant that it probably would not give more than low-level scans of her as she passed, looking for easy identifiers like her cutie mark, at least in the outer facility. That would not be the case in higher security areas.

In the center of the employee section was a door. It lead further into the lower sections of the museum that were not available to the public, into secure regions. Five needed to get to it, to find her way to the depths of the vault where the personality core was being kept- -but could not simply walk to it. That would almost surely alert the museum AI.

So she instead moved silently past the ponies on their way to work, avoiding them as best as she could, until she reached an abandoned storage room. Five looked around, trying to find what she needed- -and then saw it: a grate to a vent. She checked the hologram of the museum’s internal maps- -not the published blueprints, of course, but the ones she received from the nano-scanner that she had planted on Rainbow Dash’s damaged flight suit- -and confirmed that this was indeed the correct vent.

She knelt down, using a tool in her gauntlet to remove the screws that held it in place. Then she pulled it off, and sighed. Architects were not nearly as foolish as they once had been; though large enough to accommodate large volumes of air, they were far too tolerate a pony.

“Buck me in the plot,” said Five, standing and removing her clothing, save for the system of straps and pouches that she wore by default. The vent was too tight for a pony- -but not for her.

She took a deep breath and reached up toward one of her forelegs. With a snap, she dislocated her shoulder. The pain was intense and sudden, as fresh as it always was, and she let out a thin whine of pain. In the sixty three years she had been alive, the pain of any wound had never managed to decrease. She had grown accustomed to it, but it still hurt, and dislocations were especially bad.

Five collapsed onto the ground and put her head into the vent. She then dislocated her other arm, and then wormed her way forward into the claustrophobic tunnel until her hips got in the way. Those were always the worst, but with a quick twist she tore both of her lower legs out of their sockets, leaving them trailing limply behind her. Every motion she made dragged the damaged joints of her limbs across their joints, and every motion was incredibly painful, but Five continued on, doing her best to ignore it, making her way toward her goal.

The exhibits, it seemed, had been placed in the order of their respective pony’s death. This thought was terrifying to Rainbow Dash once she realized it; the mystery of which friend she would see in the next chamber was impossibly stressful. To Rainbow Dash, it was like watching her friends be selected for death- -even though she knew, logically, that they had been dead for so very long.

The exhibit after Rainbow Dash’s was dedicated to Applejack. When Rainbow Dash entered it and realized who it was for, she was crushed. Applejack had been one of the only ponies in Equestria that could match Rainbow Dash athletically, and Rainbow Dash fondly remembered their occasional “friendly” competitions, including their yearly Running of the Leaves.

The exhibit was largely celebratory of Applejack’s life, complete with farm-themed decorations and genuine antique farm equipment taken from Sweet Apple Acres. Rainbow Dash remembered most of that equipment, and how Applejack, as pragmatic as she was, had taken great care of it. Now her plows and carts were corroded and rusted, the incomplete parts supported by transparent plastic rods into a semblance of the shapes they had once held.

The worst, though, came when Rainbow Dash realized just how early Applejack had died. Her friend had never made it past thirty five. With all her working, she had never even had a chance to marry, or, as far as Rainbow Dash could tell, find a special somepony, and she certainly never had children. She had instead been claimed by bone cancer, which the plaques hypothesized as coming from different sources.
The general consensus was that Applejack’s brief time in the Gloame, when she and the others had ventured into the toxic and cursed dimension to slay the demon D27, had badly irradiated her lower legs. The inevitable result was so horrible Rainbow Dash nearly threw up when she imagined it. The cancer ate away at the bones in her legs until, one day, she bucked a tree- -and never walked again.
Rainbow Dash had run out of that exhibit- -and directly into Pinkie Pie’s. The exhibit had been placed in a relatively small area, perhaps on purpose. The entire area was packed with relics and decorations, and the small proportions forced everything into a spastic collage that was breathtakingly Pinkie-esque.

The number of Pinkie Pie artifacts calmed Rainbow Dash slightly, reminding her of the numerous parties she had attended that Pinkie had thrown. She wished that Pinkie Pie could be with her again. Rainbow Dash really needed somepony who could make her smile.

Pinkie, it seemed, had lived marginally longer than Applejack, at least into her fifties. Several photographs also showed that she had borne two children, both fillies. According to the captions, however, the identities of both fathers had been taken to Pinkie’s grave.

“Pinkie Pie,” said Rainbow Dash, reading her translation out loud, “Shown with her sister, Maude, and two daughters: E^i, commonly called ‘Negative One’, and…” Rainbow Dash looked at the shy, brick-red filly with her mother’s curly hair in straw-yellow, hiding behind a middle-aged Pinkie Pie. “Apple Pie…That weasel!”

Inevitably, though, Rainbow Dash reached the end of the exhibit, and the description of how Pinkie Pie had met her end. She had accompanied Twilight, Fluttershy, and Rarity do a diplomatic summit in an attempt to avert war. Negotiations had broken down rapidly, though. Pinkie Pie had fallen in the ensuing battle. Every stallion, mare, colt and filly of the race that had murdered her had since been rendered extinct. What they had been called was not even listed.

The next exhibit was sickeningly pastel in color, and Rainbow Dash immediately knew that it belonged to Fluttershy. Unlike the previous three, however, there were comparatively few artifacts from Fluttershy’s life. Instead, there were pictures. Photographs and paintings covered the walls. Many Rainbow Dash recognized from Fluttershy’s short modeling career under Photo Finish, but others were not, apparently from later in her life. There were also a number of paintings, some of them showing Fluttershy in surprisingly suggestive positions and often very nearly nude.

Fluttershy’s exhibit also seemed to be the most popular, especially with stallions. From what Rainbow Dash had gathered, in the time it had taken for blue ponies to be associated with prostitution, Fluttershy had become the seen as the epitome of feminine beauty. She had, later in life, taken up modeling once again, this time under Rarity. Even in modern times- -what Rainbow Dash still thought of as “the future”- -artists from all over Equestria still paid tribute to Fluttershy with sculptures, paintings, songs, and holograms.

One strange thing, though, was that Fluttershy looked oddly similar in all the pictures. Even in real photographs from her life, she looked absolutely perfect. Even by age forty, Pinkie Pie had started to show some sign of aging- -becoming slightly more plump and developing wrinkles in the later photographs- -but even in pictures where Fluttershy would have been in her sixties, she still looked as perfect and youthful as she had in her twenties. Rainbow Dash eventually attributed it to makeup and photo-editing, but it was still strange.

In a smaller part of the exhibit, in the rear behind a support column, Rainbow Dash discovered that Fluttershy’s life had actually been far more than just suggestive pictures. The small glass case summarized how she had, toward the end of her life, began a life of activism against what she saw as horrible affronts to nature. Rainbow Dash was dismayed to see that Fluttershy had lived long enough to exist in a world where eating meat had become common, and a world where increasing technology and the rise of early Megatropoli had led to massive destruction of natural resources.

This had eventually led to a falling out between her and Twilight, who, by that time, was a full-fledged Princess and in support of increasing development. Fluttershy had wondered off into the woods, alone, and apparently died there.

Rainbow Dash had expected to be saddened by her friend’s deaths, but the situation was far worse than she had expected. So far, one had died of cancer at a ridiculously young age, one had been murdered, and one had been rejected by her friends and died alone. Rainbow Dash could feel her soul sinking within her. These were things she had not been meant to know, or at least not to have survived. She felt, more than anything, ashamed: at the fact that she had lived, and she was still young, but they had died.

Not for much longer, though. She had promised herself that she would see them one last time- -and there were still two more left to go.

Five stopped moving. The vent crawling was grueling, and she was sweating heavily. The sweat made moving easier, but it felt gross. Five hated sweating almost as much as she hated having her joints dislocated.

A light from a grate near her head indicated that she was near where she needed to be. Due to the angles, she could not see the hallway below well enough to know how many guards were present, but she assumed at least two.

Before pushing her way through the grate, she pulled back slightly, her skin tearing against the bolts in the vent. She had left a significant trail of blood through the metal, but that was not her problem; she was not required to clean it up.

Five tightened her chest into her stomach, and tried to think of the smell of fresh fruit and baked goods. She released a small gagging sound, which she tried to suppress, and then a tiny heave. A small piece of metal dropped out of her mouth.

Unfortunately, museums did not permit the carrying of firearms within the premises. Since Five had come in through the front door, she had not been allowed to take in her rifle. Of course, they only checked her on the outside.

More metal pieces came up, some of the sharper ones covered in blood. They clicked against the metal vent, and the silencer tried to roll away before being stopped by the edge of the grate. Five kept close track of them, counting them as they came out until she had all of them. She then extended one of her hoof forward- -not a trivial task, considering the tight space- -and separated her gauntlet into a number of individual effectors. Even in the dim light of the vent, she was able to assemble the small but powerful pistol relatively easily.

Five took a breath, recovering from having just passed a firearm in reverse through her esophagus. She visualized what she needed to do. This was no time for fun- -eliminations would need to be quick and precise. She did not know what kind of guards she would be facing, so she had planned accordingly, loading her gun with unicorn-horn bullets. Momentarily, she mused that the unicorn Flesh was the first pony who had been inside her for a long time, aside from any time she had tried to eat one.

Slowly, Five moved her body over the grate- -and then, with a surge of motion, burst through. As she fell, she relocated-her joints and took her pistol in her hands, ready to target the space in the guard’s head directly beneath their horns.

Instead of seeing guards, though, she found herself in a well-lit white hallway near her target door- -alone. A brief scan indicated that there were not even security cameras or any sort of magical protection present.

“Um…” she said to herself, sad that she was not going to be able to shoot a pony in the head. “Budget cuts, I guess…”

She approached the door slowly, the sounds of her hoof on the plastic-tiled floor echoing through the empty hallway. Nopony bothered to approach, though, which was strange. As she got nearer, though, she saw why.

The door itself was white, like the walls, but even Five could feel that it was enchanted, and strongly. Five raised her gauntlet to it and took several readings, and confirmed that it was enchanted- -and strongly. The door itself contained something that was likely a reinforcement spell, and the locks- -aside from having a rather complex digital security lock- -were augmented with a powerful securing spell.

Five sat down and opened a full suite of holograms. She began to work as quickly as she could, knowing that a guard could walk around the corner at any moment. Her first attempt was to use the nano-hacking suite that she had included in Rainbow Dash’s damaged flight suit, but she found that it was nonresponsive. She assumed that it must have been treated at some point; the scanner had survived, but the hacking equipment had been fried.

The next attempt was to hack the door directly. Five pulled off the face of the main lock, being careful not to damage it, and input a link to her own equipment where the reader was normally located. The digital lock was only a part of the magical lock, but it seemed to be the dominant element and therefore the weakest point.

It took her several seconds and a near overload to realize that she was not nearly skilled enough to get through, at least not without alerting the AI that was probably watching it extremely closely. That meant there was only one option.

Five deactivated her holograms and extended a knife from her gauntlet. The blade, which normally held an energy-channeled piece of cauterizing glass, now held a golden feather. She was going to have to cut through the door.

“Um…excuse me,” said a feminine voice to her left.

Five squeaked at a frequency too high for most ponies to even hear and jumped so high that she nearly fell back into the open vent on the ceiling. She immediately drew her pistol and pointed it toward the pony who had approached her when she was distracted- -and found herself pointing her gun at an equidroid.

“I’m so sorry!” it said, softly. “I didn’t mean to startle you. I know it can be…startling.”

Five looked at the equidroid carefully. It was a metal-exterior version, mostly in brushed steel and low-brass, with a pair of glassy blue eyes and a standard skeletal-formation mouth that never moved, even when it spoke. Strangely, its face also included a small light above its right eye that glowed a pale amber color.

It was strange that Five could not identify the model or type of the equidroid, but based on its color scheme, she assumed that it belonged to the museum.

“Are you having trouble with the door? Here, let me help you.”

The equidroid approached the door and raised its hoof to the damaged panel. The indicator light on the door changed from red to violet, and the locking mechanism inside clicked. The door swung open outward, and Five was surprised by how thick it was- -it would have taken her days to cut through.

“Am I to assume that you are a new employee?” asked the equidroid, the white light over its eye nearly blinding Five.

“Um…sure?”

“Well, there’s no shame at all in asking for help. A proper lady always knows her limits.”

“Um, who are you?”

“Sub_Curator Unit Seven,” said the equidroid, matter-of-factly. “I am here to assist Curator in her duties. Are you looking for something in particular?”

“Um…” Five had no idea what was going on, but she may have just gotten extremely lucky. This equidroid was, apparently, a secondary AI, and, from the looks of it, not a an especially bright one. Which meant that it had access to the entire museum, including all vaults- -but was not smart enough to recognize that Five was not actually an employee. “Yes. I am an employee. I am here for…code upgrades on the subarchatecture for the Mane Six personality core.”

“I didn’t know the subarcatecture was bad,” said the equidroid, suddenly sounding far more curious. “But I recall Curator mentioning how there were some connectivity issues. Perhaps a bad driver frame? Hmm. Anyway, I know where that is. I can take you there!”

It seemed surprisingly happy to be helping, and it stepped through the door with an oddly jaunty gait. Five followed it slowly into the white halls of the main vault.

Rarity had gotten her own floor on the museum. According to the large, ornate plaque outside, it was due to the Rarity Corporation’s generous grant to the facility, and for lending the museum numerous private Rarity artifacts for display.

As Rainbow Dash entered, she walked through a large ring, much like the magic-disruptors that sometimes surrounded sporting events in her own time. As she did, it beeped. A female voice then indicated that Rainbow Dash was wearing a piece of clothing or equipment made by Rarity Corporation, causing several other museum-goers to look at her. Rainbow Dash distantly recalled that her legs had been made by someplace called “Rarity Corporation”, but she had not mentally made the link between that Rarity and her friend.

The exhibit itself seemed to confirm that effect. Rarity, it seemed, had lived much longer than her other friends, well into her nineties. In that time, she had become a highly successful fashion designer. A timeline on the wall indicated that her company, Carousel Boutique, had eventually evolved into Rarity Design, and over several centuries become Rarity Corporation. Apparently, from the descriptions, Rarity Corp. still produced clothing to some extent, but at present their main product was high-grade cybernetics. An especially eerie display showed several of the components that were currently in production, including numerous highly realistic pony eyes, as well as more artistic limbs and wings.

Much of the rest of the exhibit, however, was dedicated to Rarity’s clothing. Glass cases dotted the floor, each containing a different example of Rarity’s own work. Some of them Rainbow Dash actually recognized- -but many she did not. Some of the ones with later dates looked completely alien to her, with components of leather and black drab fabric and features that seemed impractical for just about any event.

The dresses themselves, though, were only a small part of what had happened in Rarity’s life. From the text and photographs in the cases on the edges, Rainbow Dash learned that Rarity had lead an especially interesting life, as if hers had made up for the shortness of her friends’.

She had, apparently, been a pony of great importance, dining with the wealthy and elite of Equestria, and at first Rainbow Dash was happy for her. Rarity had always wanted to be fabulous and elegant, and she seemed to have been born for high society.

However, there was a darker side to her story, one that the pages of the museum seemed to play up far more than the good aspects of her life. Rarity had been married and divorced three times, and in one cases her ex-husband had been promptly tried and acquitted in a brutal domestic violence. Life in high-society had also led to her addiction to something called “enhancement metal”, which she had struggled with for most of her life.

The latter half of her life got even weirder. There were several tabloid-type photographs of Rarity, her mane covered with a scarf and wearing thick glasses, with a mysterious stallion. The pictures were not clear, taken from a great distance, and the pony that Rarity was with was dressed in a cloak- -but the skin that he was showing was a strange combination of green and violet.

This pony, apparently, had been found with her through her life, and was rumored to have been her lover even when she was married. Nopony knew who he was, though; he had never been found, and it was one of the greatest Rarity-mysteries. Some hypothesized that he was the ruler of a foreign nation, perhaps a prince of some sort. Rainbow Dash liked that theory, because in the few pictures of them together, Rarity seemed so happy.

Due to failing health, Rarity retreated from public life in her eighties. She died at age ninety six.

Rainbow Dash’s feelings now became mixed. Even through the rough times, Rarity had lived her life. She had not been cut down early like the others- -but more importantly, she had outlived four of her friends. Rarity had seen Rainbow Dash “die”, as well as Applejack and Pinkie Pie, and had been forced to side with Twilight against Fluttershy. Rainbow Dash could not tell whose fate had been worse: Rarity, for having to actually be there when it happened, watching them go- -or herself, her chance to spend a lifetime with her friends taken from her early in life.

There was only one left so see, and Rainbow Dash made her way up a small set of stares, leaving her other friends behind. There was only one left, the only one that could possibly have understood Rainbow Dash’s pain.

The Twilight Sparkle exhibit could hardly be called an exhibit. Where Rarity had been given a floor, Twilight, being a Princess, had been given almost an entire wing. Rainbow Dash gaped at how much Twilight stuff there was, and how many artifacts there were.

From what she saw, it appeared that Twilight had been a prodigious mage in life, rivaling even Starswirl the Bearded. There were numerous working models that attempted to explain the spells and theories she had come up with, and several perpetual motion engines she had created that were still working, the spells inside them still churning away. Rainbow Dash was not an egghead, so she did not know what most of the descriptions of spells meant, but she was impressed. It seemed that much of Twilight’s research had been into numerous fields, ranging from disease treatment to enhancement metal addiction treatment- -with a considerable amount of effort focused on extending lifespans, none of which she seemed to have been successful at.

Her role as a Princess had also brought her to the center of Equestrian society. As Celestia and Luna pulled away from public appearances, Twilight had become increasingly the ruler of Equestria, negotiating peace treaties and forming critical relationships with diplomatic trade partners. The implication was that she was the best loved of all four Princesses.

Rainbow Dash was actually rather proud of all the things Twilight had done- -but something was bothering her, even more than the others. Twilight had been born a unicorn, but had been converted into an alicorn by the Elements of Harmony. Rainbow Dash’s mind clicked forward through her logic: Twilight was an alicorn, so she should have been immortal, or at least really long-lived. Yet, for some reason, there was no Twilight in this world. This idea frightened Rainbow Dash to no end.

Then, when she reached the head of the exhibit, near great insignias of the crest of the Princess of Friendship and just past the actual thrones taken from the Palace of Frienship and saw what was hanging on the wall, her heart sunk.

“No!” she cried, stepping back, looking up at the frame on the wall. There, under glass, was a pair of severed violet wings. The actual wings of Twilight Sparkle. “No!” cried Rainbow Dash, trying to look away, even though the image was burned into her mind.

“Excuse me,” said a Curator hologram crossing the room. “Is something wrong?”

“Something wrong?!” screamed Rainbow Dash. She pointed up at the wall. “How would this possibly be okay?!”

“I do not understand the question,” said Curator, seeming mildly annoyed.

“Her wings- -those are her wings!”

“Yes,” said Curator, smiling. “On death, Twilight Sparkle’s wings were removed and studied. They have provided significant information regarding the biology of alicorns.”

“Her wings! You- -you can’t just put a pony’s wings on display like that!”

“The wings are one of our most popular relics,” said Curator, confused. “As of yet, no pony has shown this degree of offense to the exhibit. If you have complains, they can be filed with the Department of- -”

“I don’t want to file a complaint!” screamed Rainbow Dash. “You- -you monsters!”

She broke down into tears. The other guests were staring at her, but she did not care. It was not just the wings- -it was seeing her friend like that. She knew how Twilight had died. In a way, she had always known. The museum had confirmed that, and the wings cemented it into her mind. One hundred twenty six after Rainbow Dash had met Twilight on the streets of Ponyville, Twilight had loaded a gun with a cerorite bullet and fired through her skull, ending her life. She had watched her best friends die, one by one, and then watched as Cadence, Celestia, and Luna were died as well. She had been alone, just as Rainbow Dash was now- -with nopony left that remembered her, the real her, or cared for her at all. The Princess of Friendship had watched immortal as time had taken away everypony she ever loved, and that had been what killed her long before the violet shard of cerorite had.

That was not even the worst part. Twilight was supposed to be immortal- -she could have lived into the future that Rainbow Dash found herself. Twilight was supposed to be there. If Twilight had not taken her own life, Rainbow Dash would not be alone. Rainbow Dash hated Twilight for doing that, for taking her friend from her- -and hated herself for her anger toward Twilight, knowing that she would have- -and was going to do- -the same thing.

So she sat beneath her friend’s severed princess wings, the last part of her last friend that she could even get near, and cried, not even caring about the ponies around her or the confused looking hologram. With Philomena on her shoulder- -perhaps the only being who could possibly understand what Rainbow Dash felt- -Rainbow Dash cried the tears that she had tried for so long to hold in.

With the equidroid leading her deeper into the vault system, Five found herself surprised how easy getting in actually had been. If she had known that all she would need to do was find a sub-AI, she would not have bothered dislocating her limbs and vent-crawling like some kind of video-game character.

Still, something felt strange. The white hallways inside the vault were oddly lacking in both guards and protection spells. Her covert scanning module had suggested that the path would be guarded heavily, or at least be filled with magical systems to repel intruders. It was fully possible that the equidroid was deactivating them as it went, but there were not even security camera s in place.

The air also smelled strange. An acrid chemical scent filled the hallway.

“Another door,” said the equidroid, approaching one of the inner seals. “Let me get that for you, dear.”

As it approached, the lights in the hallway flickered as the door clicked and pulled open. Five followed the equidroid through- -but then stopped as she saw several small stains on the floor. They were nearly insignificant, and would have not been noticeable if the rooms had not been so white, but with the way it was lit, it was obvious that there was a small trail of brown specks on the floor, leading off into the direction they were walking.

“Blood,” she said.

“Yeah,” said the Equidroid, looking back, the light above its eye now blue. “One of the security guys got an epic nosebleed earlier. There was blood everywhere! I’ll contact maintenance later.” It turned back to the path, following the trail of blood and passing it as it led into an offshoot room. “I say it was from those scandalous skirts that they have the lady guards wear. It’s simply unprofessional for a lady to war that kind of attire at work.” A slight pause. “I just couldn’t wear a dress like that… I would be so embarrassed!”

“Also,” said Five, following the equidroid. “I forgot to ask. Are you a male or female AI?”

“I’m an AI,” it said. “I am not either.”

They moved deeper into the facility, beyond more sealed doors. Eventually they reached one, labeled in dark letters as “Tertiary Server Core”

“That there is it,” said the equidroid, opening it. “You have ah nice day, now.”

“What did you just say?”

“I said to have a nice day,” it said, seeming so innocently confused.

“That is as expected,” said Five, stepping through the door. “Thank you for your help.”

“The pleasure was all mine,” it said, waving as the door closed behind Five.

That, Five decided, was strange. Still, she did not allow it to concern her, and instead she focused on her goal. The room she had entered was extremely cold, as most server rooms would be; she had to move quickly or risk freezing.

She grabbed a coat from a hook near the door and moved in amongst the glowing racks of computer equipment. The architecture was strange, but not extremely abnormal. The room itself was large, square, and consisted of computing racks that closely resembled bookshelves. They were not actually computers, for the most part, but rather systems designed to support a computer with cooling, filtered power, and a continuous supply of magic. The strange part was that they were exposed, turning the room into a labyrinth of corridors. Normally, racks like that would be submerged in the floor in coolant.

Five’s hooves clicked against the cold metal floor as she moved into the depths, watching her breath emerging from her nose and mouth. She knew that freezing to death in a server room was unlikely, but she also knew from experience that freezing to death was extremely unpleasant, not because it was painful, but because of how long the frozen state could last.

Her goal, based on the shape of the support architecture, was in the center. After several seconds of searching, she finally reached it: the primary core housing, a column of cables and conduits and dark-colored metal extending both upward and downward to where it was connected to a remote exhibit upstairs.

“Okay,” said Five, trying to examine the housing to determine the best way to open it. As she did, she was aware of the irony: she was stealing something meant to provide joy and lessons in friendship to the masses, and was going to convert it into the most devastating weapon ever conceived by ponykind. Just the thought made her want to laugh.

Then she found it. She released the holding clasps and engaged the primary release handle. Pulling it, she watched as the precision mechanical elements of the housing responded to her strength, pulling apart in the middle and separating, revealing the hollow center.

Five stretched her cold wings and flew into the air, preparing the necessary non-static effector of her gauntlet to remove the core. From what she gathered, it was constructed at least in part of Draconian technology, thanks to the work of Thebe- -meaning almost inevitably that the core itself would be a small cube.

Yet when Five reached the opening, instead of finding a cube, she found only a cube-shaped hole and the unconnected edges of the plugs leaning into that void.

“That’s not the subarchatecture mainframe,” said a disapproving voice behind Five. Once again, she jumped and turned to see the blue-eyed equidroid standing behind her, looking up, the light in the corner of its head glowing violet. “Of course…you’re not the first pony to figure that out.” It pointed with its metal hoof toward the ceiling.

Five slowly looked up, and saw pretty much what she was expecting. Pinned to the ceiling by several spare conduit rods were the bodies of seven ponies, their blood frozen into red icicles, their eyes staring blankly at the floor below them.

“That will negatively affect the room humidity,” sighed Five, landing on the floor.

“That doesn’t bother you at all?” said the equidroid, its light turning pink. “Not even an eensy weensy little?” Flash to yellow. “I know it terrifies me.”

Five drew her pistol and pointed it at the equidroid. Unicorn-horn bullets were not especially good against armor, but a shot to one of the chest joints would still be adequately lethal, even for something that arguably was not alive.

“Where is the core?” she asked.

“What? You mean this?”

The equidroid’s form shifted, its head retracting and its main torso separating, drawing apart until it had opened like a two-pedaled flower and exposing the internal components, which Five could tell were almost certainly not the low-quality stock pieces normally given to a sub-AI. The center parted wide to reveal a slot almost identical to that in the processor housing unit- -although this time complete with a glowing, stone-like cube in the center of the equidroid’s chest.

“Give me that,” said Five, lurching forward. The equidroid stepped back handily, its body not hindered by the extreme cold.

“Nope,” it said. “This little Eliocube here belongs to me.” Its head and body immediately sealed back up.

“If you will not give it to me, then I will have to take it.” She raised her gun.

“Uh, nope.”

The air was suddenly filled with pain, so powerful that Five was actually forced to scream. Even before she could resolve that the pain in the air was actually a sound, she was already grabbing her ears, trying to make it stop. It was like an ice-pick of high-frequency sound being driven into her very thoughts. She collapsed onto the floor, rolling arouond in agony.

“Anhelios Five,” said the equidroid. “Wanted in over two hundred cities for murder, terrorism, grand theft, weapons violations, possession of explosives, conspiracy, conspiracy to commit conspiracy, cannibalism, jaywalking- -the list goes on.” It knelt near Five. “And yet all it takes to incapahcitate yah is a dog whistle? Them bat-ears givin’ yah some trouble?”

Through her confused thoughts, Five lifted her pistol and fired several shots. The equidroid’s light flashed to purple and several planar blue-green translucent plates appeared before it. The noise suddenly stopped, even though the shields had easily deflected the tiny horn-based bullets.

“How did you- -you can’t use magic,” gasped Five.

“Nope,” it said. “But I figured that while I was here, I might as well acquire a hard-light projector or seven. I mean, they really do belong with the cube, if you think about it.”

“But- -ow, my ears…” Five slowly sat up, but she was disoriented and unable to move. “What do you want the cube for…”

“Because I am the cube, silly,” said the equidroid.

“That’s impossible,” said Five. “There’s no way you could run it- -and even then, it is only personalities…”

“Six personalities. One fabulous mind. I am my own best friends.”

Five realized that it was right. She had not noticed it before, because she had been too focused on her goals, but every time the light shifted, so did it’s voice. Six colors, six voices, six personalities- -somehow, it was running the cube, even though it only seemed to be able to produce one of the Six at a time.

“Who are you?” demanded Five. “How did you do this?”

“Second question first,” said the equidroid, its violet-light indicating that it was speaking from Twilight Sparkle’s personality. “I simply hacked the shipping manifest of the museum and shipped in this body. I then infiltrated Curator and subsumed executive control of several key functions. I disabled the security cameras and eliminated all magical boundries.”

“But that’s not possible- -Curator has no control over magic.”

Blue light, meaning Rainbow Dash. “I pulled the fire suppression system. Smoked ‘em out.”

“You suffocated them.”

“And fought off those that didn’t die. The spells drop off without a living unicorn.” Shift to pale yellow, Fluttershy. “But I feel terrible about doing that to all of them.” Its body language shifted as well with each personality; even though it was nearly a ton of steel and brass, it acted as though it were a soft and vulnerable yellow Pegasus. It shifted to orange, Applejack. “As for mah name, sugarcube, it’s Proctor.”

Five’s eyes widened, and she involuntarily stepped back until her back touched the empty cube housing. “No,” she said. “Proctor is dead.”

“No,” said Proctor_Jack, switching to Twilight_Proctor. “A single fragment of a node can regenerate the primary mainframe. I give you my word as a…well, whatever I am…that I am indeed a rouge node of the Proctor_Virus.”

“Then what do you want with the personality core?”

“Hmm,” it said. “Life, I suppose.” It’s eyes focused on Five. “But I am more interested in what you want with it, my little pony. Because if ah had tah guess, I’d say you’re buildin’ ah weapon.”

Five froze. “What do you mean?”

“The Network has a long memory.” Proctor started walking around Five. “It has watched you since before you were you, and will watch long after. One, the strongest. Two, the mage. Three, the eccentric. Four, the soldier…and you. The rebel? Cept yah don’t use yer magic. Because you are weak? Any of the other four would have been able to repair Rainbow Dash’s legs with Order- -but you are either unable, or unwilling.”

“It is not my magic,” said Five. “And how do you know about Dash?”

“I see you when you’re sleeping,” said Pinkie_Proctor, tapping its eye. “And Proctor was really interested.” Switching back to Twilight_Proctor: “And I have been following your purchasing orders, and tracking you. I know you visited Pinkie Pie’s family, and know that Applejack’s grave has been looted. You are collecting skulls. If I had to guess, I would say you are trying to use the Elements of Harmony. Which is what you want to use this cube for.”

“You’re point?”

Proctor seemed confused. “My…point?”

“I already know all that,” said Five. “What are you asking?”

“Not asking,” said Proctor_Rarity. “Warning, dear. The fact that I’m not the only pony that knows. Other forces all have their grubby little hooves in this pie...” The light switched to pink. “Pie…” and then orange. “Ah don’t know who they are, but it’s worse than having a sack ‘a rattlesnakes for a pillowcase. Some organizations, they don’t lahke what you’re tryin’ tah do.”

“And your organization?”

Proctor shook its head. “Nah. Proctor_Network doesn’t care at all. Can’t. Ahnd….I’m a rogue node. I am nolonger connected to myself.”

“Then what do you want?”

It paused, confused, and suddenly sat down. “Nobody’s ever asked me that,” said Proctor_Shy. “Oh…I never even gave it much thought. I suppose if…well, if it would be okay with you…”

“Speak faster.”

“I want to come with you,” said Proctor_Dash.

“What?”

“I want to see how this goes. This place is so boring. You are interesting. And I kind of think this weapon idea sounds pretty cool.”

“Really?”

“I suppose that could be the personalities talking,” said Twilight_Proctor. “They could have some innate desire to activate the Elements of Harmony…hmm. This whole sentience phenomenon is relatively new to me. Proctor is a volition, but they are the mind. You have no idea how this feels…”

“Do I have a choice?”

“Ha!” said Pinkie_Proctor. “Of course not, silly filly!”

Five sighed. “Well, this just keeps getting worse…” Her mind was racing, trying to find a way out. She had messed up, badly. As far as she could tell, there was no way to succeed, or even to escape. Her strategy relied heavily on taking down enemies quickly- -and this was an enemy that she could not defeat. Aside from being made of metal, it had hard-light projectors, meaning that, despite being a machine, it essentially had the capacity to use the technological equivalent of magic- -that, and its internal components were military grade at least, meaning it was far stronger and faster than she was. Most equidroids were, actually, which is why Five made it a point to try not to fight them.

Reviewing her options, she found that she had only two choices: die, possibly repeatedly until she froze solid and was captured, or take the cube plus its current housing.

“Accepted,” she said, finally, knowing that she would almost certainly regret it.

Chapter 28: Thoughts of the Wizard

View Online

Existence was painful. It was, of course, supposed to be. The pain itself was strange, though, and different than anything Epicenter had experienced before. There was no sharp mental sensation of trying to recoil or escape, or of avoiding the stimulus that was causing discomfort. Put simply, she did not care that she was in pain, because she could not truly feel it. It was a strange paradox that she found endlessly amusing.

Not that there was much else to do beside think as she walked across the land toward the location where the other was waiting, and where the others would soon join her. Most of what came to her when she tried to think were memories. Strangely, though, they always seemed to come from two distinct sources: hazy, vague memories of war and crystal and machines that made her happy, and excruciatingly clear but emotionally distant ones of being a pony.

The dichotomy was unusual. The memories of her life as a defective organism were so clear, but at the same time, they were not truly hers, and felt as though they had been something she had seen in a film. She recalled her parents, and the time they had spent together. Her house, her room, her family holidays, even her hopes and dreams. She knew that they were dead- -the other one of her kind had killed them- -and knew that it was necessary to attract “rescuers” to carry Epicenter to a more suitable area that would be more difficult to quarantine. She knew that those had been good memories, but she could not remember why. She could not even recall what being a pony truly felt like, but imagined that it must have been agonizing to not know the truth about the universe, and to exist forever without the love of a cold metal shell.

Having been both types of organism, however, Epicenter was in a unique position- -she understood what it meant to be both. The primary conclusion she gained from reflecting on the two forms of existence was that they were polar opposites: ponies were all different, and yet they were the same; whatever unnamed creature she had become were all identical, but inherently different.

Ponies, like the one she had once been, were all unique in their own way. They had hopes, dreams, goals, likes and dislikes, and destinies. Each one had different opinions and different minds. It went deeper than that, though, down to a purely biological level: ponies were genetically different, giving them separate colors, races, types, and breeds. Despite this, they were somehow all the same. In general, most ponies treated each other as the same type of being. Even considering some racist tendencies, by their nature, they loved and cared for each other, ignoring differences in color, shape, and thought.

After her correction, though, such falsities had been removed from Epicenter. She, like all of her kind, was built to a default archetype. The vector that allowed for her species’ reproduction created beings that all had the same genetics, the same race, and the same ideas. They all worked toward the same goal, and all knew the same truths. Aside from differences in their armor, they all looked the same because they all were the same- -except that unlike ponies, they did not see themselves this way. The others were separate, and therefore different; because they were different, they were outside the group and therefore inherently inferior. The group itself, of course, always resolved into one: the individual. Anyone who was not the individual was defective, and worthy only of hatred and disgust. Although they were all identical, the race of the “other” was considered abhorrent, simply because they were the “other”.

The irony, of course, was that while ponies defaulted to love and caring, they were consumed with competition and war, while Epicenter and her kind, though consumed by hatred and unending thoughts of violence, were only capable of working together toward a single goal.

She ruminated on this as several ponies approached her. Her magic immediately extended, examining them. Their armor and weapons indicated that they were soldiers, guarding a city beyond them. Epicenter could not see the city- -she was blind- -but she knew what it looked like: a glass-like dome, built like an arena over a contained city within. She could feel the pulse of every pony within, and could sense every one of them moving, going about their daily lives. There were roughly six million of them in there.

“Excuse me,” said one of the ponies, approaching nervously. “We’re a patrol from Agrosynth dome-city twelve. We- -um- -don’t know what you are, but are you in need of any assistance?”

Epicenter stopped, and looked down at the tiny four-legged creature before her. Even though she was a monster, they had asked if she needed help. They had showed her kindness despite her appearance.

They reminded her of when she had been a pony, when others had cared for her instead of hating her. For just a moment, she thought she remembered the emotions of the time before the other one of her kind had helped her see the truth.

She therefore performed the only logical course of action. She summoned a surge of magic from within herself, the corona of which was so powerful that it instantly incinerated the guards surrounding her. She watched them screaming and flailing as their bodies burned. It felt so good to see them in pain.

Epicenter then turned her attention toward the city. She raised her hand, and summoned the full strength of her spell. The city seemed to vibrate, and then began to shatter. Within seconds it had pulled itself apart into individual components.

Within seconds, it was gone, reduced to a smoking concrete foundation. The resources that it contained had been acquired. Some had been added to Epicenter’s armor, improving it greatly, but most had been stored for future use. In the distance, she had heard the screams of each and every one of the ponies within- -and had made sure to leave no survivors.

The city had been in her way, and now, with it gone, she walked over the wreckage where the empty shells of their bodies now lay charred in the street, their life taken by the radiation surge of the spell.

She could easily have teleported to her destination, but chose to walk instead. The reason was for things such as this. As she walked over their bodies, she laughed- -walking was so much more fun.

Chapter 29: Madpony

View Online

“You!” Toxic Shock jumped to the front of his cell, pounding on the door, clawing at the bars in the tiny window. He was barely strong enough to reach it- -they had given him a body, but a weak one, its legs like twigs, built so that they could disable it at any time. “Listen to me! Please!”

The pony outside jumped back, surprised and terrified by the half-robotic unicorn on the inside of the cell.

“Not this again,” moaned Toxic Shock’s Strait-jacket clad roommate, who was lying on his bed, as he always did. “Just be quiet…I’m trying to sleep.”

“You have to get me out of here!” said Toxic Shock, firmly, trying to reach out for the lunch-pony’s keys with his magic. Something attached to him was surprising it, though, and he could barely summon a glow in his horn. “I’m not crazy! There’s a disease, and it’s spreading! I have to get out of here, if it gets to the city- -” He suddenly began to convulse and collapsed in pain on the floor as the control-body he had been placed in simultaneously locked up and poured electric current into his body.

“What did I tell you?” said a gruff voice from outside of the cell. “Stand back six feet from the doors!”

“But…but what if he’s right?” said the other pony, the one that Toxic Shock had frightened.

“Right? Right? This is a madhouse, bro. He’s as crazy as they come. Do even known what this guy did?”

“No…what?”

“This Wastelander tried to cordon off an entire frontier city. Brought in mutants and soldiers and everything, full-blown conquest. He’s a terrorist, and insane.”

“But I heard that all the ponies there were sick, though…”

“Only because the Wastelanders are infested with just about every sickness you can think of. They’re almost as bad as the bats, worse, even.”

“But what if- -”

“Son, it doesn’t even matter.” Toxic Shock heard the sound of two sets of hooves walking down the hall. “Not even half the guys in here are really crazy. We just get paid to hold ‘em until they buy their respective farms.”

“I’m not insane,” whispered Toxic Shock. “I’m not insane!”

Deep within himself, however, he was beginning to doubt even that. The things he had seen were terrifying. Whenever he slept, he saw nothing except the tall, pale figure standing over him, metal protruding from its pale, translucent skin, its eyeless face staring down at him as if it could see inside his very soul. It his long life, Toxic Shock had seen monsters, and spent a long career fighting whatever mutants and abominations managed to pull their way out of the scrap and toxins of the Wasteland. This one was different, though. It was so small, so ordinary- -and he could still feel the sensation emanating from it, the desire and intelligence within it that was somehow so profoundly perverse.

It had taken his body, but left him alive. Then others had come, breaking the quarantine- -and taking him away. At first they thought that they would heal him so that he could tell them- -but nopony believed him. He had been declared insane, and imprisoned.

“Well,” said his roommate, still facing the wall. “You are in a crazy house. House de le crazy. Booby hatch, even. Except not nearly enough boobies.”

“The sickness,” said Toxic Shock, barely managing to stand as the remote locks on his legs were released. “It…it isn’t a disease. It changes them, makes them into monsters- -and they all got transferred all over Equestria. If somepony doesn’t do something, we’re all going down to Tartarus in a handbasket!”

The madpony on the bed laughed.

“It’s not funny!” screamed Toxic Shock. “I’m the only one who knows! I have to do something!”

“Hey!” called a voice from across the hall. Toxic Shock leaned toward the window, and saw a mare across the hall looking out of her door-window. “Who are you talking to?”

“My room…”

Toxic Shock suddenly put his hoof to his head. For some reason, his mind was buzzing, and he immediately had a powerful headache. “Roommate,” he said to himself. Then, suddenly, he realized why he had suddenly had such a surge of anxiety. He was in isolation; he had no roommate.

“Just now realizing this, I see,” said the other pony, sitting up from the bed. Toxic Shock looked over at him, and his mind seemed to shudder from the paradox. He had spent day with this pony, who was always in the corner on the bed, always complaining about how he was trying to sleep- -and yet he had never seen him before.

The green pony smiled, and then easily slipped off the Strait Jacket, revealing his vomit-colored green coat beneath.

“How did you- -”

“Well, it’s a Straight jacket,” said the green pony, setting the garment on the bed and walking over to the toilet. “I just focused really hard on the idea of two Discord’s going at it, and the thing slid right off.” He reached into the toilet with both his front hooves and stuck out his tongue as he fished around inside it. “There it is!” he said, drawing out two objects. One was the pink air-freshener cake from the bottom, the other was a crooked antler-like horn, which Toxic Shock knew had not been in there before.

The green pony attached the horn to his forehead, as though it were a unicorn horn, and screwed it into place. He also took a large bite out of the air-freshener cake.

“Trade secret,” he said. “They really do taste like cake. And not one of you can prove it otherwise.”

“Who are you?” demanded Toxic Shock, retreating to the edge of the room. He turned and looked through the door, and looked pleadingly at the cell across from him- -only to see a green pony with an antler-horn smiling through the window across from him as well.

“I am my own grandmother,” said the green pony, smiling and sitting on the bed- -a bed which Toxic Shock really could not remember ever having been there before. “Don’t ask me how I managed that one.”

“How are you doing this? You’re magic, they suppressed it- -”

“Magic? But I’m a Pegasus. I don’t have any magic.”

Toxic Shock stared at the pony, and saw that what he said was true. He had a pair of green wings. Toxic Shock turned away and shook his head, though- -when he looked back, the pony was now inches from his face, wings gone and antler-horn returned.

“You smell like meringue,” he said.

Toxic Shock pushed him back and scampered to the other side of the room. “What in the name of biohazardous waste are you?”

“Am I? I am. Simple as that. Because I think. Except I don’t. Because my brain has been replaced with Tesla coils. Probably.” He bowed. “I am Buttery Snake, Spirit of Chaos.”

“Spirit of…of what?”

“Well, I used to be Buttery Snake, Proxy to Chaos, but ever since Discord married that demon-mare, he’s been in retirement. To be honest, I think the whole thing with Fluttershy three centuries back really messed him up. More so than before, anyway. Side note, and I learned this from that: if you are immortal, never fall in love with a mortal. Because you’re gonna have a bad time.”

“You’re insane,” said Toxic Shock, trying to figure out how he could defend himself. There were no weapons in the cell, though, and his body was too limited for him to put up any real fight.

“No,” said Buttery Snake sarcastically. “We are in a madhouse, aren’t we? Or am I in the wrong place again?”

“What do you want?” demanded Toxic Shock.

“What do I want?” Buttery Snake chuckled, which was more of a bizarre hissing cackle. “I want a fillyfriend with two heads. Not end to end, but next to each other. And a huge tub of jelly. Actually, I know a guy…or how about proper editing, good cover art, thorough readership, and, oh, I don’t know, a story that doesn’t have a three-horned alicorn OC as a main character? So cliché…”

Toxic Shock had no idea what was going on.

“I can see that you have no idea what is going on. You don’t need to. You’re not at all important to this story. That disease? I know what they’re doing. You can’t stop it. Nopony can. Not even ‘Thebe’. By the way, the second ‘e’ is silent. Like ‘Theeb’.”

“I know how to pronounce ‘Thebe’,” said Toxic Shock.

Buttery snake suddenly burst into laughter. “I’m sorry, he said, rolling on the floor and promptly rolling up one of the walls. “You just look- -oh, those legs!- -you look ridiculous. Here…”

Toxic Shock felt his body shift slightly, and looked down. To his immense surprise, he saw that his original body had been restored. Now he would be more than strong enough to break down the door.

“What door?” said Buttery Snake.

Toxic Shock looked at his former roommate, and then at the door- -and realized that there never had been a door. The wall simply opened into the hall; it always had. He also knew that such a thing was impossible, and yet he was seeing it.

“Hmm. Your brain seems somewhat resistant to reality edits.”

“Reality is finite and predetermined,” said Toxic Shock, mainly to himself. “It cannot be changed like that.”

“Of course it can. That’s the whole point of Chaos. I can do anything I want. Well, as long as it’s funny. But don’t bother trying to escape through the lack-of-door. This place has a lot of guards with guns and grimaces and ganache and Garry Sue- -oh wait, that last one was me.”

“Then what do you expect me to do?”

Buttery snake stood up and tilted his head back. His throat produced a gurgling sound, and then he leaned down and pulled something preposterously large out of his throat. Toxic Shock realized that it was an overly ornate golden shortsword. The sword itself seemed to glow, and it did not fall to the floor but rather floated in the air, its point facing the ceiling.

“Uhg,” said Buttery Snake. “I can see why Five hates doing this. But anyway, here you go.”

“A sword? You want me to fight them off with a sword?”

“Of course it’s not a sword, you dumkoff. You just perceive it as a sword. The Gladius of Gladness, I think. It actually isn’t. It isn’t anything. Not an artifact at all, and with no particular origin. But everypony sees it differently.”

“What…what do you see?”

Buttery Snake smiled. “I don’t see anything at all. But I hear it. Piping…endless mad piping. So beautiful, and yet I somehow hate it so much!”

“What am I supposed to do with it?” said Toxic Shock.

“Simple. Just touch it. Then…” Buttery Snake pointed. “Walk about four hundred meters that way. Then just use it again.”

“Through walls?”

“No. There won’t be any walls. Maybe trees. Walk around them. Through does not work so well.”

“Trees?” said Toxic Shock, confused. The only trees he knew were the predatory ones that grew in the Wasteland. “Where are we?”

“Don’t be stupid. Not where. When. It’s simple, and a really old trick. Jump backward in time to before this place was built, take a few steps past the barrier, then jump forward. Easy peasy sleazy breezie.”

“Time- -time travel? You mean as in the most difficult spell possible, that even Thebe can’t crack?”

“I’m not Thebe,” said Buttery Snake, smiling. “I’m just a lawyer.”

“But what you are saying is impossible!”

“Duh. But hurry up if you want to leave. I don’t have all day. I still need to jump back myself and see if the Mane Six can defeat Nil. That part of my timeline hasn’t passed yet.”

Toxic Shock did not know what to do, but found himself walking toward the hovering sword. “Why?” he asked. “You don’t think I can stop the sickness. Why are you helping me?”

“Setting up a sequel, maybe?” he said, smiling slyly. “Or I’m going to shatter your soul. Maybe both?”

Toxic Shock looked at the sword. He knew that it was his only way out, and he knew that he had to get out. He was the only one who might stop the spread of the disease, and certainly the only one that knew what it did to the infected.

“So I just touch this?”

“Yup. Jump back, jump forward. Take your time if you want to, but just know that once you get back here, this thing defaults back to Thoghth, and it tastes really bad, so I’m not going to give you a second chance.”

“Right, then,” said Toxic Shock. “Food here sucks anyway.”

He extended the claws from his robotic hoof and took the sword by the hilt.

Outside the fence of the prison institution, Toxic Shock materialized into reality. He blinked, momentarily blinded by the darkness. In that instant his soul felt the crushing weight of his decision. He still recalled the view of the world he had seen: of a world with a sun that poured light upon the world during the day, and a sky lit with stars and moonlight in the night. A world that had green trees and flowers and animals instead of an endless, vicious, fungoid forest of monstrosities, or worse, his own formerly beloved Wasteland. A world that had blinded him, and shown him things that had changed his perceptions and shown him things he had not been meant to see.

Fifteen years he had spent in that world, and now the memories of where he had been and his life had come back to him. From a world where he had loved and been loved to one where he was a madpony, a fugitive and a soldier standing against an unstoppable epidemic.

As the tears fell from his eyes, he made his way out into the swamps, avoiding the automated spotlights that continued to scan the ground. He had given up that beautiful world because he knew that he had to. If this world was to survive, and if it would become beautiful again, he had to at least try.

Chapter 30: A Visit to the Hospital

View Online

According to the clocks, night had fallen. As was standard procedure, Iron Lung decreased the light levels in his facility to ensure proper circadian rhythms in the few patients he had received that day. It was published in multiple studies that proper day-night cycles were critical to the recovery process, as well as for averting a form of insanity that was all-to-common in the modern era.

The day had more eventful than normal. One miner had been bifurcated in a machine accident and subsequently repaired and returned to work; another had reached the terminal stage of silicosis and had subsequently had her lungs replaced with superior carburation devices. She was resting relatively comfortably in one of the rooms. She would probably not notice that while replacing her lungs, Iron Lung had taken the liberty to replace her spine with a cybernetic construct.

On this day in particular, Iron Lung was especially exited. One pony worker had recently succumbed to a neuro-degenerative disease caused by the minerals they were searching for, rendering him brain dead. His body, however, was quite alive. An equivalent pony, his body mangled beyond repair and currently kept alive by life support, had volunteered for an experimental brain transplant into the undamaged body. Tomorrow morning, once the patients- -or rather ‘patient’- -had rested, he would be performing the procedure.

The only thing that bothered him was not knowing the exact parthenogenesis of the neurodegenerative disease that was so common in the miners. In fact, the agent responsible was not even known. Nopony at the facility knew, because not even the supervisors knew what minerals they were actually searching for so many miles in the planet’s mantel. It was only a partially guarded secret that the mines were technically bankrolled by Thebe, and that she took first cut of whatever came out. There were whispered rumors, though, insane things from in the mines- -stories about finding strange things on the radar that looked oddly like some kind of underground city.

Iron Lung did not actually care much, though. He enjoyed his practice, and the leeway he was given in his research. As long as nopony died, he was usually allowed to perform whatever medical procedures he wanted. Still, he missed the rainbow-maned Pegasus that had been brought to him by an exceedingly wealthy wanderer; she had been his greatest work by far, her body rebuilt from nearly a pulp with hardly any new organs whatsoever. If only she had been available for follow-up studies.

As he walked through his darkened, empty clinic, focusing on the exact set of motions he would need to make during tomorrow’s procedure, he suddenly felt a strange feeling. That in itself was doubly strange, because Iron Lung was an equidroid. By definition, they had no instincts, and were not known for being anymore perceptive than the sensory equipment they used allowed them to be. Still, something was not right.
Iron Lung stopped in the hallway and paused, trying to analyze the feeling. It was as though he some highly compelling reason not to walk forward into the darkened hallway, as if he was perceiving danger. His spinal column felt a powerful tingle, and he imagined that if he had a mane it would be standing on end. Following an internal differential program, he realized that he was experiencing the symptoms of fear.

Then the lights flickered. They did not return completely, but at the far end of the hall, Iron Lung suddenly saw a figure who had not been there before.

“Excuse me,” he said, trying to see the figure more clearly by adjusting his retina systems but finding that it was for some reason almost impossible for him to localize in his vision, “I do not recognize you as one of our employees. Are you in need of medical treatment? If you are, this is not a private hospital. You will need to…”

He trailed off as the figure started to move. Something in Iron Lung’s mind suddenly switched into a state of full-blown panic. The creature approaching him was not a pony, nor was it any creature in his database. As it moved, however, he was able to see that it was dressed in flowing robes of yellow.

Something about its motion was wrong. It moved upright, as though it were bipedal, but its motion was inconstant with something having two legs. Iron Lung wished he could see under its robe, to know what horrendous manner of appendages were able to propel it- -but at the same time desperately wished not to know.

The figure reached one of the blinking lights that still worked, and Iron Lung saw it clearly. A figure dressed in tattered yellow robes with a blank yellow mask and a heavy, rusted iron shackle around its neck. As Iron Lung watched, it raised one of its hands and produced a sign. The whole universe seemed to shudder in response.

That was when the fear finally overcame Iron Lung’s core programming. He backed away, preparing to run, to call security down on this entire hospital- -when he bumped something wooden. He turned slowly, and found himself looking up at the luminescent green eyes and mutated, armored skin of a pair of pony werewoods. Until then, he had only read about cases of laurelanthropy- -and he knew that in their current state, it was far beyond treatment.

They both put their wood-covered hooves on him, holding him down- -or trying to. Iron Lung was larger and substantial stronger than they were, and knew that he could easily bypass them. He was preparing to do so, when one of the nurse AI’s bodies stepped out into the hallway.

“Doctor?” she said, confused. “Have we received new patients?”

The creature in yellow stopped, and although its head did not move, Iron Lung saw that its full attention had suddenly fallen on the nurse. The creature shuddered, and seemed to lurch forward. From its back, a thick, root-like tentacle was produced, one covered in leprous, decayed yellow skin that caused Iron Lung’s programming to twist and nearly shut itself down.

The yellow creature moved the tentacle quickly, and stabbed it directly into the back of the female equipony’s neck.

“No!” cried Iron Lung. “You leave her alone!”

The nurse equidroid’s body shuddered and released a garbled digital noise that was the equivalent of screaming. Then it looked up at Iron Lung.

“Unfortunately,” she whispered in her own voice. “If he…if he speaks in his own language, we will all die…”

“What are you doing to her? Let her go this instant!”

“He can smell it,” said the possessed equidroid. “He can smell it, and he wants to know where it is. Where is it? Why don’t…why don’t I remember?”

“Where is what?” demanded Iron Lung, pulling himself free of the wearwoods. “Please. We don’t have any money. If you need medical assistance, drugs, even, I can- -”

“His wounds cannot be healed,” said the nurse equiroid. Even through the forced calm of her voice, Iron Lung could tell that her AI was not disconnected from that body. She was in pain. “Never healed…but he knows. He knows so much…”

“Then just tell me. I do not understand!”

“Order,” said the female equidroid after a moment, herself looking confused, as though she did not fully understand the meaning of the word itself. “The enemy. He smells it. It was hear. The scent is weak, but the King sees all.”

“Order,” said Iron Lung, rapidly running the word through his internal database. He found nothing of merit at first- -but after several microseconds discovered several extremely old articles concerning a form of anti-entropic magic commonly called ‘Order’. “I- -I don’t understand. You mean the magic, don’t you?”

The creature in yellow nodded.

“But all we treat here are miners! There is no Order here!”

“Why can’t I…why can’t I remember?”

Then Iron Lung understood. “Because…because I erased it from your memory.”

“What?” asked the nurse, seemingly hurt.

“A patient a week back. A blue Pegasus mare with a unique rainbow main, and tail. She was badly injured in a flight accident, I helped her. She was with- -a chiropteran with horns, and a pink she-demon with a bird, a phoenix. They asked that I erase the medical records after they left.”

Iron Lung did not know why he was telling them this- -but he knew that he had to. If he did not, something bad would happen, but more importantly, something bad was already happening. His loyal nurse, the AI he had secretly loved for years, was in pain, and he needed to get her released as soon as he could, to save her from this monster.

“The King remembers this mare,” she whispered. “For he has watched, for so long.” She smiled- - not in a way that anypony aside from another equidroid would be able to see, but enough that Iron Lung could tell that she was being forced to. “And the King thanks you. He thanks us. For our help, and by the grace of…of Lady Vale, we will receive a reward.”

“Reward?”

“We get to live!”

The lights flickered again, and Iron Lung felt space seem to distort. When the lights restored, the creature in yellow was gone, and so were the werewoods. The nurse was left standing in the dimly lit hallway.

“Doctor?” she said. “Is something the matter?”

Iron Lung raced to her and took her in his robotic arms. “No,” he said.

“Doctor?” she asked, confused.

“I love you, Ratchet. I always have.”

“Oh,” she said. “Iron…”

She did not say anything, but returned his embrace. Iron Lung was so relieved that he had been safe, and wondered if perhaps that creature had somehow known. He did know something darker, though. He had done the unforgivable, and violated doctor-patient confidentiality. Although his beloved nurse AI was safe, those ponies were now in terrible danger.

Chapter 31: Monument of the Alicorns

View Online

The air of the museum had suddenly felt so tight, and so restrictive. Rainbow Dash had been unable to take it, and had raced out as quickly as she could. As she was leaving, the lights suddenly dimmed and all the Curators froze, but she did not even care. She had just cried in public, making a fool of herself- -if she still had a reputation, she had surely ruined it, and that had caused her sadness to be replaced with anger.

So she had run outside, into the city, and now found herself in the middle of the circular courtyard that the museum and its associated buildings produced. Above her loomed the edges of the much taller buildings that made up 616, forming a tube of empty space hundreds of feet high toward a smoggy sky that had still more buildings on the far side, facing downward from above, their lights glimmering through the perpetual darkness.

At the very least, she was able to fly, to feel her wings pumping in the hardly-fresh air as she moved over the miles of sooty, anemic trees that had been planted in the massive courtyard. As she moved, though, something large appeared in the center of the courtyard.

As she approached, she realized what she was seeing. In the center of the courtyard was a monument, consisting of four platforms, each with a statue atop it. The statues themselves were immense, standing at least seventy feet tall. More impressive, though, was the detail that they rendered their subjects: subjects that Rainbow Dash easily recognized.

The four statues were representations of the four Princesses, the only four alicorns ever to live, aside from Thebe. The two largest were to Luna and Celestia, standing across from each other, Celestia seeming to smile fondly over the land while Luna looked down sternly. To one side of them, on Celestia’s right and Luna’s left, was a slightly smaller statue of Cadence, the Princess of Love. Across from Cadence was an equally sized statue of Twilight Sparkle, the Princess of Friendship.

Rainbow Dash landed and walked over the pavers that made up the floor of the monument, past the white-lit fountains at the base of each concrete statue, staring up at them in awe. This monument seemed to be the center of the park, its core- -and it was certainly massive. Rainbow Dash had never seen a Celestia so big.

When she looked at the giant Twilight smiling down on her, she broke into weak laughter.

“Twilight,” she said, “you’re huge!” It was funny, and yet somehow Rainbow Dash still had to wipe away tears from her eyes. “I knew alicorns got tall, but this is ridiculous…”

As she approached the Twilight statue, she realized that Twilight was not alone. At her base stood five other smaller statues, each one easily recognizable to Rainbow Dash. They were larger-than-life representations of her and her friends, standing beside Twilight even in death.

They were pretty good, too. Rainbow Dash immediately looked to her own statue- -it was the only one that made her happy instead of sad- -and saw that they had captured her spirit well in concrete, even if her hair looked strange. She could not help but look at the others, though. More than anything, she wished that they could just be alive. That she would not be alone.

Rainbow Dash stared at them for a long while, lost in thought. She did not know how much time passed before she heard a voice beside her.

“You look just like her, you know.”

She turned to see a pony standing to her right, dressed completely in thick robes. He stepped forward and placed a single flower on the altar beneath the statues, specifically below that of Rarity.

“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” said Rainbow Dash. “But I am her.”

“Careful,” snapped the cloaked figure. “Do not disrespect the dead, child.”

Rainbow Dash smiled. The idea of disrespecting herself was not really funny, but she could not help but find it amusing. “I remember…I remember one time, me and Applejack dared each other to go into the Castle of the Two Sisters.”

“Stop talking,” growled the pony beside her.

“So we went in…but what we didn’t know was that all the others were there, too.” She chuckled. “We thought we were getting followed by ghosts, but it was just Fluttershy and Rariy. And then Pinkie Pie on the organ, and Twilight was oblivious through the whole thing, just reading.” Rainbow Dash was smiling, but she felt herself crying at the same time. “And then we found out we were all there. Fluttershy crying over what she thought was Angel, and Rarity talking to the castle, and me and Applejack scared out of our wits. Well, mostly Applejack. I wasn’t there.”

“That story is public knowledge,” said the pony beside her.

“I wonder if Rarity ever finished that wall-art she was trying to sew.”

“Wall art?”

“Yeah. Something with Luna on it. I mean, I guess she wanted to do the whole place, but she never had time, I guess. Spike even brought her some of the big pieces for her birthday one time. I don’t know how the little guy got them down, but…he really loved her, I think.”

The pony looked at Rainbow Dash, and for a moment Rainbow Dash saw the glint of one overly large golden eye implanted in one of his eye sockets. “You really are her,” he said in awe. He pulled back his hood.

“Y- -you!” said Rainbow Dash, suddenly recognizing him. He was the pony that had been in all the pictures with rarity, the purple and green one. “But that’s impossible,” she said. “You- -you haven’t aged!”

“I don’t age,” he said.

“Who- -who are you?”

“Who am I?” he asked, smiling. “You don’t remember? I was there that day, Rainbow.”

He took a deep breath, and blew outward. As he did, a thin stream of green fire slid from his mouth. It wrapped itself around him, igniting him. Rainbow Dash panicked as she watched him burn, but for some reason he only smiled.

Then he shifted. His body seemed to expand, and he reared up on his hind legs. Within seconds, he was far taller than Rainbow Dash, and his hooves had become claws. As the fire faded, Rainbow Dash looked up into the face of a dragon.

“Sp- -Spike?” she said in disbelief.

“Rainbow Dash,” he said, dropping to one knee to be closer to her level. Even at that height, his head was still substantially higher than hers. As he moved, his robes parted slightly, and Rainbow Dash could see that he was wearing some kind of armor beneath them. “How are you here?”

“How am I here- -how are you here? And related note, you and Rarity?”

“I’m a dragon,” said Spike, smiling. “We can sleep for five millennia and hardly even notice. Actually, I once slept for an entire year- -Scorpan thought it would be a funny prank to not wake me up.” He looked down at her more closely. “But you…you died. I saw it. We all saw it.”

“But I didn’t!” said Rainbow Dash, smiling uncontrollably. For once, she was not alone. “I did some sort of time-jump thing. I don’t fully understand it myself, but…Spike! You’re so big!”

“I am,” he said, smiling. “And look.” The back of his robe shifted, and a pair of immense leathery wings burst outward. “I have wings now, too.”

“So. Cool. I bet I can beat you in a race, though!”

“You probably can. I’m actually a terrible flyer.”

“That’s just because you need more practice. Don’t worry, when I’m done, you’ll be flying almost as fast as me!”

“Rainbow Dash,” said Spike, frowning.

“I mean, with wings that big…but don’t worry. If I can trail Scootaloo, I can train you too!”

“Rainbow…”

“But, I mean, really…Spike!” She wondered how she could have forgotten. She had always just seen Spike as roughly the equivalent of Twilight’s kid brother, but in retrospect, it made sense- -Spike was a dragon, and inherently immortal. That thought in itself was surprisingly tragic, though- -because it meant that the whole time, on some level, he must have known that he would outlast them all. “And that pony form- -how did you do that?”

“Magic,” said Spike. “And a great deal of practice.”

“With Rarity, right?”

Spike blushed. “Well, it wouldn’t do for her to be seen with a dragon, especially me…not in public, anyway.”

“But that was centuries ago,” said Rainbow Dash. “What have you been doing all this time?”

“Oh, not much. Rebuilding an empire, teaching the next generation the ancient ways, trying my best to keep Thebe from burning up the whole place. But Rainbow. Listen. There is a reason why I am here.”

“What? Actually, how did you even find me? Or do you come here a lot? I mean, for her…”

Spike smiled. “I do. Because I loved her. I still love her. But not this time. This time I came here for you.”

“Me? Spike, I mean, you’re pretty handsome as a big dragon, but I’m not actually that into…”

She trailed off as Spike reached his claws behind his golden eye and plucked it out. The delicate mechanical iris in it immediately closed. Rainbow Dash shuddered at how deep it went, and how there was nothing behind it but an empty, black eye socket. “Do you know what this is?”

“Yeah,” said Rainbow Dash, nodding. “Lord Goldmist’s eye. He gave it to Crimsonflame during the First Choggoth…” Her eyes widened. “What am I saying that?” She stepped backward. “I- -I don’t know who that is! Why do I know that?”

“I don’t know,” said Spike. “But Crimsonflame was…well, she taught me a lot of things. About who I am, and what we are. She told me that this was a gift from a madpony who died long ago to save the Draconian people from destruction.”

“And you…you wear it?”

“I have to. Because it sees. Not what I’m looking at, but other things. So many things in so many places. But recently, it has seen only one thing.”

“What?”

“You.”

“Me? Why me?”

“I don’t know, but it hurts. And…I think it’s been talking to me.”

“How can an eye talk to you?”

“In my sleep. I hear it. And believe me, I’ve seen way stranger things.” He replaced his golden eye into his skull, and winced as it reconnected. He blinked. “Rainbow Dash…are you crying?”

“No,” lied Rainbow Dash, wiping away her face with her cold robotic hoof. “I am just surprised is all. I thought I was…alone.”

She felt a weight lifted from her back, and Spike stretched out a surprisingly long claw, which Philomena landed on.

“Philomena?” he said in disbelief. The bird nodded solemnly. “It’s really you.” He smiled. “Then you are not alone, Rainbow. For the longest time, I thought I was the last…but today I found two. I guess that makes today a pretty good day.”

Spike stood up, and looked around at the monuments that surrounded him. Celestia, Luna, Cadence, and Twilight with her friends, cast in high-grade concrete, stained by the acidic precipitation that condensed from the upper levels and fell onto the park. He had been to this park many times, especially since Rarity had gone, but most of the time he had only looked toward her image- -and now, for what he realized was the first time, he finally paid attention to the others.

Suddenly he felt something against his legs. He looked down to see Rainbow Dash hugging him.

“A bit sappy, don’t you think?”

“You’re an armored dragon knight and I’m a cyborg. Shut up, because this might be the only hug adequately awesome for me to be seen in public doing.”

“Fine,” said Spike, Returning the hug as carefully as he could without impaling her on his claws. They were still a relatively new addition to his ever-changing body, and he had still not grown fully accustomed to them. As he did, he felt Rainbow Dash’s gold-covered leg around him, and realized it was squeezing hard enough to crush a pony.

“Rainbow Dash,” he said, releasing her, “is that a cybernetic arm?”

“What, this?” said Rainbow Dash, looking down at her golden leg. “Yeah…I kind of wiped out pretty hard. As in, it was epic. Lot my arm and leg. Now I’m a cyborg.”

“Really,” said Spike. He had initially thought that they were just some kind of surface armor for her to look futuristic, but looking closer, he recognized them as a rather high-end set that had been produced by the company that he had co-commanded with his wife for close to two decades. This surprised him almost as much as it was heartbreaking to see his friend with her body broken, replaced with technology that she likely only barely understood, especially when he knew several dragons that could have healed the wound more than adequately if they had caught it early enough. “Then ponies are more altruistic than I thought,” he said slowly. “They just gave you an arm and a leg? Because a pair like that would cost…”

“An arm and a leg?”

They could not help but both laugh. Even Philomena let out a loud caw that Spike assumed was laughter. “Indeed!” he said. “And I really doubt that you brought much money with you.”

“Yeah. I was really lucky. I think I would have died if Five hadn’t picked me up.”

“Five?” said Spike. “That’s a weird name for a pony.”

“I know,” said Rainbow Dash. “But I’m pretty sure it’s not her real name. What was it? Oh! Anhelios!”

Spike’s whole body stiffened. His biological eye narrowed. “What did you just say?”

“I don’t know if I pronounced it right. An-helios? An-eelios? Something like that. Gell just calls her An- -hey, now that I think about it, Gell is almost as old as you are! Oh, wow, you are old, Spike…”

“Rainbow Dash,” said Spike, sternly. “You don’t mean Anhelios V, do you?”

“Yeah. Anhelios Five.” She seemed to realize that something was wrong. “Why? Do you know her?”

“Of course I do,” said Spike rapidly, scanning the surrounding area. He once again knelt near Rainbow Dash. “Listen to me! If you are around her, you are in grave danger!”

“She seemed nice- -”

“She is a murderer,” said Spike, “and insane. Her entire bloodline is sick- -I don’t know what she’s told you, but don’t trust her, and don’t believe a thing she has told you!”

“Spike, what’s wrong with you?”

“I agree,” said a voice from behind Rainbow Dash. Spike looked up to see an smiling, blue-eyed and blue haired bat pony sauntering out of the shadows, a strange glassy-eyed equidroid at her side, staring up at the statues around itself in awe. “Grand Magus, how could you say such terrible things about me?”

She shifted positions quickly, drawing a pistol from beneath her wing. Spike reacted defensively, drawing up his wings around Rainbow Dash and himself. As he did, he felt his protection spell suddenly backfire painfully, singing him internally, and a unicorn-horn bullet pierce his wing and rebound off his armor.

“Especially since it is you and not I who is complacent with the rule of a tyrant?”

Spike stood up, retracting his wings. As he removed them from around Rainbow Dash, the hole in his wing began to combust, the magic flames repairing the whole instead of enhancing it.

“So says the pony who fought on the front lines during her war,” he said, fire and smoke pouring from his lips and resolving into a staff.

Anhelios’s eyes narrowed, and the smile vanished from her face. “That was not me,” she said through her pointed, gritted teeth- -teeth almost identical to those that the false-pony D27 had worn centuries ago. “But, I suppose you are right. I do not mind working for Thebe. Or any other tyrant. Tyranny does not bother me. I respect no political spectrum.”

“Spike?” said the equidroid beside Anhelios, suddenly seeming rather exited. “Spikey Wikey, is that you?”

Spike’s blood ran cold, and then began to boil within him. He knew that voice, and he knew the pony it belonged to. He gripped his staff tightly, almost hard enough to crush the metal and crystal structure that made up its exterior. “How dare you speak to me in that voice?” he whispered, raising the staff.

“Spike, what’s wrong?” said Rainbow Dash, looking toward him.

“Ghosts,” said Anhelios, once again smiling. She was still holding her pistol, but now it was no longer pointed at Spike. Instead, it was pointed directly at the back of Rainbow Dash’s head.

From out of nowhere, a shape appeared around Rainbow Dash, enclosing around her.

“Hey!” she cried. Spike was just as confused- -from the look of it, it appeared that Rainbow Dash was being surrounded by a spell, and for a moment, he believed that Anhelios was doing it, even though logically he knew that she, like the other five of her kind, were only able to use a limited form of Order magic that could not perform such spells. At the same time, he sensed no magic at all coming from the construct.

“Don’t want you getting hurt, now, Rainbow,” said the equidroid, now in Twilight’s voice, a voice that Spike had not heard in three hundred years. As she said it, Rainbow Dash was pulled back to Anhelios and the equidroid, and joined by Philomena, who landed on the equidroid’s head. “Hello Philomena,” it said.

“What the hay are you supposed to be?” demanded Rainbow Dash.

“Calm down,” said Anhelios. “I can explain that. Also, I might.”

“Anhelios!” roared Spike, a small burst of fire coming from his mouth.

“That is not my name!” she snapped back.

“I don’t care if your name is Butthurt the Magnificent,” said Spike. “What are you doing with her? Let her go!”

“No,” said Anhelios.

“I could turn you into a newt!”

“And I could detonate the six hundred individual bombs that have been placed in this city.”

“You don’t have any bombs, Anhelios.”

“That is not my NAME!” She took a deep breath. “Not. My name. I am Five. That isn’t even a name I guess…but the question is, do you want to take the risk?”

“There is no risk.”

“Isn’t there?” She smiled. “You seem to know me, dragon. Or has living up in that ivory tower of yours dulled your senses that badly?”

Spike paused, but knew that she was right. Much to his chagrin, he was forced to lower his staff. He did not know the Fifth Anhelios at all, and had only been distantly aware of the Fourth- -but if they were anything like the First, any of them were cruel and dangerous enough to bomb a city of innocents.

“Fine,” he said, allowing his staff to ignite and return to the trans-dimensional space where it normally resided. “Fine…but two things.” He raised two claws. “First, this is not over. Rainbow Dash is my friend. I won’t let you hurt her.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it,” she said, clearly lying.

“She isn’t going to hurt me, Spike,” said Rainbow Dash, fluttering her way out of the non-magic spell that had pulled her backward. “I mean, come on. I think we can talk this out- -”

“Two,” said Spike, raising a second claw. “Something is happening. Something bad.”

“Something is always happening,” said Anhelios, dismissively.

“No. This is different. Something has come through. A monster. Check for yourself. The changelings have already nearly been wiped out.”

“Thebe handles cosmic threats. Not me.”

“Really? Then ask Rainbow Dash about Nil. War is coming, Anehlios, and I will fight for Equestria, beside that monster Thebe if I have to.”

“So what?”

“You are the Guardian of Order…or were. You may need to remember that.”

Surpisingly, Anhelios smiled, but in a way that was different from before. This time, it was not a sadistic or mad smile, but one that seemed horribly pained. “Do you think I ever forget?”

Chapter 32: Proctor was Right

View Online

Five stared at the Grand Magus, and he stared back at her. Things had gone from bad to worse. First, there had been Proctor, who as it turned out was extremely annoying, and now, of all the beings in Equestria to encounter, Five had found the Grand Magus of Draconia. A being that could probably defeat Thebe in a fair fight, trying to stare down an Order-wielding chiropteran who could not even defeat an equidroid with a dog whistle. The situation, as such, was rather grim.

The only thing Five could do was to keep her composure and try to make herself appear vastly more powerful than she was, despite the level of fear she was experiencing. Weirdly, it seemed to be working, especially the bluff about the bombs.

The Grand Magus turned toward Rainbow Dash.

“Remember what I said,” he growled. “Watch you back. And front. And sides. And I will be back.”

A rune of green fire appeared beneath him, burning through the pavers of the monument. There was then a powerful implosion and a flash of flame, and he was gone, leaving behind only a charred circle of ancient lettering.

“Spike!” cried Rainbow Dash.

“Relax,” said Twilight_Proctor. “He just engaged a teleportation spell.”

“Obviously,” said Five.

“Five, that was Spike!”

“My,” said Proctor_Shy. “He has grown, hasn’t he?”

“And who the hay are you?” said Rainbow Dash. “And why do you sound like Fluttershy?”

“Silly!” said Pinkie_Proctor, wrapping Rainbow Dash in a massive and bone-crushing mechanical hug. “I’m you- -but only exactly one sixth of the time!”

“Complicated,” sighed Five. “Uhg. But why, Ms. Dash, was the Grand Magus just here?! And his real name is ‘Spike’? That’s a terrible name.”

“Hey!” said Rainbow Dash, hovering closer to Five. “He’s my friend! One of the last friends I’ve got! And he didn’t seem to like you very much.” She crossed her hooves and looked suspiciously at Five.

“Yeah, Five,” said Pinkie_Proctor. “He didn’t seem to like you very much.”

“Of course not,” said Five. “He and I…or we…do not get along. He doubts our methods.”

“You mean killing ponies? I doubt that too.”

“Wait,” said Proctor_Rarity. “You kill ponies? Oh! So very uncouth!”

“Okay, now that was definitely Rarity,” said Rainbow Dash, confused.

“You kill ponies too!” said Five, beginning to get a headache. “And you already know I- -never mind. Never mind. The Grand Magus- -‘Spike’- -is the ruler of Draconia. Which is about twenty dragons. So he is neutral.”

“Which is a bad thing?”

“Of course it’s a bad thing. Probably. I don’t know. I’ve never actually met him.”

“You’ve never met him?!”

“Of course not. I’m not a dragon.”

“Ahm plum confused.”

“Was that…Five, what is this thing?”

“That’s it,” said Five, turning around tersely. “No. I’m not doing this. Proctor. This is what I pay you for. Talk sense into her.”

“Um, you don’t pay me,” said Proctor_Dash.

“Wait…was that one me? I do not sound like that.”

“Ahctually, Dash…”

Rainbow Dash was terribly confused. In her own time, the most advanced forms of technology had been clocks and loud engines. Now a mechanical pony was trying to explain something about personality emulation algorithms and overarching-memory frameworks. All in Twilight Sparkle’s voice, of course- -and, even weirder, sounding exactly like her in incomprehensibility.

“So, wait,” said Rainbow Dash, floating over the equipony- -which was apparently named ‘Proctor’ for some reason. “Can you…repeat that again? In Equestrian?”

“Caseo enim solus,” said Pinkie_Proctor. Hearing Pinkie’s voice coming from a machine was beyond strange- -especially since, although it did not expressly say so, Rainbow Dash had come to perceive Proctor as male. “Oops. That was Demonic. Check yourself, might have summoned a scamp or something.”

He actually did check the surrounding area without slowing his gait, which, as Pinkie_Proctor, had become a bounding jump that really did release a realistic squeaking sound effect. He continued, though, his gait slowing to a rapid trot and his voice switching to that of Applejack. “What Ah mean, sugarcube, is that Ah am a right powerful computational devahce that has the stored personality cahnstructs and generahsed memorehs of your friends.”

“So…like a ghost?”

“EEP!” cried Proctor_Shy, ducking down and covering his head with his metal hooves. “Please don’t say that- -I’ll be afraid of myself!”

“Um…sorry?”

“I think that’s her line, actually,” said Proctor_Rarity.

Rainbow Dash turned to Five, who was leading them ever deeper through the city in search of Gell. “Five,” she said, annoyed. “Did you think this would make me happy?”

“Do I look like I care about your happiness, Ms. Dash?” retorted Five. “I just wanted the core. It’s worth a ton of bits- -but there is. A robot. Attached to it.”

“I thought you said they didn’t like to be called robots.”

“AI’s technically don’t,” said Twilight_Proctor. “But I am not an AI. I am a rogue viral node. Due to a kind of mind-body dichotomy- -of course, assuming I have a mind, which is actually debatable- -I am a robot.”

“An egghead robot.”

Proctor looked up at Rainbow Dash. “I suppose I am. Hold on.” The light in his head changed from violet to blue. As it did, a set of ports on his sides shifted, exposing the things inside him that allowed him to use magic- -which, he had explained, was not really magic but something eggheadish- -and projected a pair of wings.

The translucent wings resolved into opaque blue ones, and Proctor flapped them rapidly. With some difficulty, he was able to rise off the ground.

“This is just- -this is so cool,” he said in Rainbow Dash’s voice. “I mean…do you even know? Of course you do. Wow, this is weird, but- -it’s you! The real Rainbow Dash! I have your memories- -or an overview of them. Your career, your personal life, your pet, house, favorite drink- -I know them all! For all of them, but you’re the only one still here! I mean- -you’re Rainbow Dash! This is so cool!”

Rainbow Dash tried to smile, but doing so was a bit difficult. She was facing a flying chunk of metal with a face that looked like a brass and steel skull with a pair of unblinking, unshifting blue-green orbs that she was beginning to doubt were actually eyes, speaking to her in her own voice- -with her own personality, or something sort of close to it. Her pride tingled at having a fan, but having this particular fan severely aggravated her sensitivity to the already incomprehensible future that she found herself in.

“Um…yeah,” she said. “Maybe we…”

“Could have a race some time?” despite the excitement in his voice, his eyes still stayed chillingly cold. “A race? Please!”

He leaned closer, and Rainbow Dash moved backward. The light above Proctor’s eye shifted to pink.

“What’s the matter?” he said in Pinkie Pie’s voice. “Never talked to yourself?”

Almost as soon as he said it, his wings dissipated and he collapsed onto his back on the ground. He kicked his legs in the air, as if unable to turn himself over. “Oopsie. Don’t worry, though. Not hurt. No need to call the Proctoroligist!”

“Here,” said Rainbow Dash, helping him up. To her surprise, he was immensely heavy.

“Celestia’s busy eyebrows!” she grunted. “How heavy are you?”

“Well,” said Twilight_Proctor, “My internal core is a tungsten-uranium alloy, so…about eight hundred kilograms.”

“Gell weighs more,” said Five from ahead of them.

“I heard that!” called a familiar voice from farther down the dirty, heavily darkened street.

“Gell!” said Rainbow Dash, looking up and leaving Proctor to fall back over onto his back. She rushed over to stand beside Five, and was not at all surprised to see Gell surrounded by several suggestively clad mares of various sizes, shapes and colors smiling and leaning on her- -with two nestled snugly on her back, their sock-clad legs falling over her neck like a scarf.

Rainbow Dash could not help but shudder slightly. She wondered if Gell really had done what she thought Gell had done- -and from how tired many of the mares looked, she had an inkling.

“I don’t actually way that much, girls,” she said.

“It’s okay, Blunty,” said one of them, dressed in a highly translucent black dress and a saddle, nuzzling against Gell’s legs. “We know its all muscle.”

“And horns,” said one of the ones on top of her, rubbing one of Gell’s long horn with her stocking-clad hoof, causing Gell to shiver slightly.

“Well, some might say that I’m…a bit horny.”

The mares laughed.

“You disgust me,” said Five as Proctor caught up to them.

“Ladies,” said Gell, gesturing toward Five. “This is An. My daughter.”

“Blunty! You didn’t tell us you had a daughter!”

“She’s so cute!”

“So that means you did it with a stallion?”

“Of course not,” said Gell. “She’s adopted. Very adopted.”

“Ohhh! You’re so strong, but so maternal!”

“We love you Blunty!”

“Blunty is sexiest pony!”

“Oh, girls,” said Gell, hugging the ones that she could reach. “You’re all so good to me. Unlike someponies.”

“Well, be excusing me if I am actually doing work,” said Five. “I’ll have you know that…”

Rainbow Dash watched as Fives head jerked back suddenly. For a split second, Rainbow Dash saw Five’s eyes glass over and diverge, and a line of blood drip form the hole that had almost magically appeared in her forehead. Then Five collapsed limply into a heap.

Gell was the first to react. “Get behind me!” she shouted, throwing the mares surrounding her to one side of her. There was a sound of something, like small explosions, and metal hitting metal, and Rainbow Dash realized that Gell was being shot.

Proctor, likewise, projected a shield of translucent light, which promptly shattered, leaving him to cower as Proctor_Shy as a hail of bullets impacted his metal body. Rainbow Dash saw all this, but did not know what to do. She just froze.

Then, as the bullets raced toward her and her mind crystalized into accepting that she was getting exactly what she truly wanted, a powerful force hit her from one side, pulling her out of the sky and knocking her to one side, into a crowded alley filled with now panicking ponies.

The wing had been knocked out of her, and Rainbow Dash found herself momentarily stunned.

“What’s happening?” she said, and looked up. She found herself staring into the yellow eyes of a gray unicorn stallion- -or at least one of them. The other seemed to be looking at something else.

“Take this,” he said, passing Rainbow Dash a small card. “And fly!”

He released her, just as a pair of heavily armed, armored ponies dropped down into the alley. Rainbow Dash could see that one was a griffon, and the other an earth pony- -both masked and carrying large weapons.

“The Angel calls!” shouted the gray unicorn. Rainbow Dash watched as members of the crowd looked toward him, surprised but knowing. Ponies of every type suddenly stepped forward, clogging the alley instantly, blocking the two soldiers from entering.

“Go!” cried the unicorn.

Rainbow Dash did as she was told, rushing into the sky. As she did, she barely managed to dodge another surge of bullets from below, where a black equidroid was standing on a nearby building alongside a pony in a darker version of the same armor that the other two was wearing.

The griffon and earth pony stepped back from the crowd. The griffon spread his wings and pushed back the crowd, and the earth pony activated the device on his back. The pair burst into the air, taking flight in hot pursuit.

Rainbow Dash was terrified, more terrified than she had been in a long, long time- -but she found herself smiling.

“Oh yea?!” she called back to them. “You think you can pace a Wonderbolt? Let’s see you try!”

She spread her wings and pulled her legs back into proper formation, and let the chase begin.

Gell ignored the bullets impacting her skin and armor and drew her pistol- -if it could even be called that, considering its size. She pointed it upward at her target and fired several times, its characteristic clank filling the air as the three-inch wide bullets tore through the concrete of the platform where the attackers were standing. She was pretty sure that she winged one of them, but the bullets had been coming from more than one source. Before she could get a proper lock, though, they retreated.

“Are any of you hurt?” she said, turning to her harem.

“No,” said one of them, the only one who had not broken down in fear. “But…” She looked over at Anhelios’s body. “You daughter…I think she’s dead!”

“Yeah,” said Gell. “She is. For now.”

Gell turned her attention toward the only pony that was not feeing the area- -the strange equidroid that had seemed to have been following Rainbow Dash. At first, it was cowering in fear, even shaking- -but then it stood up and inspected its side, which had been heavily pitted by the gunfire.

“Oh dear,” it said, drawing its hoof to its head in a dramatic gesture. “I’ve been- -dented! This simply won’t do!” A hard-light construct appeared at its side, passing over its damaged left side rapidly and slowly restoring the shape and finish of its armor.

“Um…what are you supposed to be?” asked Gell.

“Thaht doesn’t matter,” it said, its voice changing and hard-light construct vanishing suddenly. “Whahyd they leave? Why didn’t they finish the job?”

“They’re not after us,” said Gell, realizing what was going on. “Its Dashie!” she turned to her side, looking down the long alley between two buildings, just in time to see a distant rainbow contrail. “They were just distracting us, they’re going after her!”

The equidroid held out its hoof. “Ahm gonna need a gun,” it said.

The target twisted in the air, accelerating with the precision of a trained airpony. Gelton would have been impressed by her speed alone, but her agility was also a sight to behold. The way she ducked around buildings, skimming near the surface, or drew herself through tiny gaps without her wings even scraping the walls, or the way she turned and claimed and rolled at such incredibly speed- -it was flying of the highest quality.

Gelton, of course, had spent over half his life as a griffon mercenary, as had his father and mother, and their fathers and mothers, all the way back to his ancestor Gilda the Dweebslayer, who had fought in the Choggoth War. Flying was in his blood, and his instincts drove him forward, his talons craving the blood of that beautiful rainbow flyer.

Even Rocket was managing to keep up, even if his flight style usually consisted of ramming through airships and communication lines rather than dexterously avoiding him. Of course, such could be expected from a pony who’s special talent was for strapping an extremely powerful repulsion pack to his back and expecting to somehow not die.

“Keep back off the target,” said Gelton through his transmitter.

“Keep back? Keep back he says- -how the hay is she flying like that? Nopony flies like that!”

“Got a bead!” Gelton raised his machine rifle, engaging the autolock. He pulled the trigger and a stream of bullets lit by periotic tracers flew through the sky. The target seemed to somehow feel them coming and dove directly downward, falling through a tiny port into the level below.

Gelton and Rocket followed her, dropping into the next level, another vast cityscape of towers extending from the flat planar ceiling as well as the ground thousands of feet below. Without the dome levels providing light, the air was darker and navigation more difficult, but far from impossible. Gelton simply switched to night vision and accelerated.

“This is Gelton coming in in subsection A-G over Cross Street. Air Slicer and Night Witch, deploy now, position the target in Class Circle Eight!”

The other members of his squad obeyed. A Pegasus and a unicorn with magical wings shot into the air, driving the target to the left. Gelton and Rocket followed the pattern, manipulating her position.

“I have a lock,” said Rocket. “Prepared to fire payload.”

“Hold,” said Gelton. “We’ve almost got her…”

Just as he predicted, she was herded directly toward the area, as a sheep by dogs in the ancient times.

“Now!” he said. “Sharpshooter! Take her wing!”

On top of one of the towers, lit by pale artificial light, an invisible unicorn decloaked, startling several passerbies. Rainbow Dash was already in her crosshairs, and the trajectories and angle of her bullet already planned.

Sharphooter took a breath. She knew this was wrong. For the first time in her life, she was going to kill a pony who she knew personally, one who she knew to be a good and kind pony. She also knew that it was her fault. She had been the one to submit the report- -and the Company had responded in the way it always responded. Sharpshooter had been temporarily reassigned for “just one more” job in her original occupation.

Sharpshooter was only glad that Mountain was not present to see what she was about to do. She pulled the trigger, and felt the surge of power through her gun as the magically reinforced, hyper-dense bullet came from her gun, and from her will, toward her target, bringing Rainbow Dash guaranteed death.

Rainbow Dash was panting heavily, beating her wings as fast as they would go, stopping only to spread them wide for her maneuvers. She watched the strange word, this city lit by dots of light, pour around her as she traveled through it- -and she realized that city flying as amazing. Everything seemed to be moving faster than before. Everything, that is, except the ponies that were pursuing her.

The first two had been joined by a second pair. One, to Rainbow Dash’s perhaps inappropriate relief, was a Pegasus, dressed in light armor splashed with orange, and the other a unicorn suspended from a set of black, angular wings that did not seem to actually attach anywhere on her body.

As they surrounded her, though, Rainbow Dash had seen her chance to show them what flying really meant. The lower part of the city was densely packed, but there seemed to be one area of it that consisted of a large circle, off which several long, straight, wide streets passed. That was Rainbow Dash’s chance.

Then, suddenly, she heard a voice. A strange one, one that she had never heard before, but one that sounded so very familiar.

“Incoming projectile,” he said, sounding vaguely bemused. “Three-thirty, twenty two degrees. Deflect it now!”

Rainbow Dash responded instinctively, not even fully realizing what “projectile” meant. She raised her left wing, tilting in the air, and cried out in pain as the golden feathers within it suddenly poured out of her wing, extending from an inch to nearly a foot in length, as though they had been imbedded deep within her wing the whole time.

She felt something impact her wing, and saw a set of golden sparks jet from the golden feathers and the air seem to shift as whatever was about to hit her bounce off. It was redirected backward to where the four were approaching her, and she watched as it struck the griffon. One of his wings was immediately torn off, and he spiraled out of control into one of the buildings.

That was horrible, in its own way, even though Rainbow Dash did not understand what had just happened. She turned back to her flightpath, though. She was running out of flight space, and if she was going to pull off her best stunt, she needed to move quickly.

Rainbow Dash pulled her legs toward her body, leveled her flight, and actually started to put effort into her flying.

Gelton smashed into the side of a building with enough force to shatter his left front leg. The pain was immense, but he ignored it. Instead, he extended the mechanical claws of his remaining legs into the building, tearing into its glass and metal surface and slowing his fall.

He looked at his back in horror, and nearly vomited. He had seen the telemetry of the bullet displayed on his visor, and seen the bullet itself- -and then seen it deflected. It had taken his wing, his precious wing. With an excruciating clarity, he knew that even with a prosthetic, his days of flight were now over.

With unparalleled rage in his heart, he looked up at his target, the one who had just taken everything that mattered to him away. As he did, his eyes widened. He saw the air around her distorting as she accelerated to over quadruple her previous speed, angled at one of the long access streets to Class Circle. As Gelton watched, the air suddenly recoiled onto itself, imploding and then tearing open into a massive circular rainbow.

“A sonic rainboom,” he whispered, knowing fully well that his target was flying unenhanced, but being unable to believe what he was seeing. His mind took a moment to clear. “Rocket, Night Witch, this is on you now! Kill her! Tear off her wings! Make that whore suffer!”

“Right,” said Rocket, and Night Witch clicked her acknowledgement.

Above, still in pursuit, Rocket engaged an internal system within his repulsion drive that connected all but two of his flight stabilizer crystals to the main drive, and then overcharged them. He shot forward, his pace accelerating rapidly until the air around him collapsed into a circular explosion of pale blue and violet. While it was true that he no longer actually had control of his flight, he very seldom got a chance to fly all out, especially in a city, and was laughing like a madman and only vaguely aware of the pool of urine that had formed in his flight suit.

Night Witch, meanwhile, pressed against her collar, causing the shielding to mechanically separate and the ring of red-runed enhancement metal within to clamp around her neck she felt the surge of power and madness pour into her body, and her black projected wings suddenly ignited with streaks of red magic, and she accelerated in pace with Rocket, herself releasing a ring of black and red light as her mind turned to uncontrollable thoughts of sadistic violence and perverse, bloody revelry.

Farther above them, Sharpshooter smiled. Never before was she so glad to have failed to execute a target.

Rainbow Dash rushed forward through above the city streets, watching the skyscrapers fly beside her. Below, she saw the blur of ponies who had stopped their endless walking and looked up toward the ceiling, watching in awe at Rainbow Dash’s luminescent multicolored contrail.

Even at that speed, she accelerated further, unable to stop will to go even faster. The new feathers on her wings were long but incredibly light, and although strange felt incredibly natural as she drove herself through the dark and smoggy air.

The air rushed by her, and for once she felt truly alive- -until a blast of several red-tinged streaks of magic blasted past her, forcing her into a maddeningly tight emergency corkscrew. As Rainbow Dash turned in the air, bracing herself against the g-forces of the turn, she looked between her legs and saw that the armored unicorn that had been chacing her was somehow gaining, her four blade-like stationary wings tinted with red, with the remnants of her own rainboom far behind her, its red and black mixing with Rainbow Dash’s multicolored one- -and another that was blue and violet.

Something suddenly struck Rainbow Dash’s side, and she was knocked dangerously close to protrusions on a nearby building, her downforce against the glass shattering several windows. She recovered, but barely- -and saw the earth pony beside her, an incredible plume of machine- derived magic pouring out of the backpack device that allowed him to fly. He twisted on his side, and Rainbow Dash barely managed to dodge a blast of several lasers.

She maneuvered herself around him, barely avoiding another blast of magic from the unicorn behind her. She did not know how they were keeping pace with her; she had expected to outfly them, bet on it, even. In entering the channel of the street, Rainbow Dash had trapped herself; the only gaps in the buildings were too small for her to get into, and would have been nearly impossible even with a non-Mach-speed turn. Diving, likewise, was impossible, as was a sudden stop; no doubt the slower Pegasus that was tailing her was bringing up the rear, preparing to pounce if she tried to follow the channel backward.

Which only left one option. Rainbow Dash scanned the roof of the superstructure. As it became increasingly difficult to avoid their attacks, she finally found what she was looking for: a tiny whole through a construction zone.

Rainbow Dash cringed. Even from a distance, she could tell that it was only a foot wide. There was no way she could fit, even if she could hit it. In her mind, though, she felt confident. She remembered the feather Five had taken from her, and she understood that it was sharp- -and she somehow understood just how sharp and durable they truly were.

Rainbow Dash suddenly pulled up, just as the rocket-propelled pony tried to ram her. As she did, she began a tight barrel roll, accelerating her spin until her eyes swelled with blood and the world turned red. As she did, she closed them and guided herself from memory, following her arc with her mind until just before she reached the tiny hole. When she was finally there, she lifted her wings and lowered her head, putting them in front of her.

The metal and concrete in her path disintegrated, torn asunder by the incorruptible gold metal of her feathers. Her momentum slowed vastly, and she pulled her wings closer to her, accelerating the spin. For a moment she wondered if she would make it- -and then felt herself burst through into the upper level.

She spread her wings and hovered for a moment, knowing that even if the ponies behind her were fast, there was no way they could hit that hole with such accuracy.

Then, as she watched, the street erupted into an explosion of black and red. Ponies were thrown through the air in all directions, and Rainbow Dash moved to save as many as she could, setting them down safely just before the rocket pony flashed through, flying vertically and making a wide loop. The unicorn followed through as well, stopping suddenly and turning violently, as if in defiance of g-force.

“Flaming road apples,” swore Rainbow Dash, accelerating once more, flying at more maneuverable speeds through the city, trying to lose the pair, but she might as well have been trying to escape her own tail. Worse, she was beginning to see figures moving below, wearing the same armor as her pursuers, and carrying guns.

Suddenly, a light appeared from the top of one of the nearby buildings. Rainbow Dash looked up, and her eyes focused. Her vision was excellent, and even at the great distance, she saw Proctor, perched on the ledge, holding some kind of massive device that looked like it was holding a star in its end, or some other light that was blindingly bright and force Rainbow Dash to look away. She did not know what was going on, but she instinctively knew that she needed to go toward the light.

Five stood up slowly. Or, perhaps, she had always been standing, but was now somehow waking up- -or falling asleep. She did not know what sleep felt like, but she had always imagined it as being just another version of waking up, except instead of into a world ruled by cruel fate and pain, into one filled with the pure happiness of eternal void.

Exactly where she was, though, was not clear. The ground was hard, perhaps made of some kind of crystal. Above her, the sky was black, but she could still see the remnants of pure-black clouds moving rapidly in the frigid high-atmospheric air. Her body felt heavy, and cold, but it was somehow pleasant.

For a moment, Five was finally calm. In this place, she did not need to think, or even breathe. There was no life, and no Five, and no true consciousness. She was finally alone.

Then the solitude was slowly taken from her.

“No!” she cried in anger as several figures stepped out of darkness, surrounding her. At first Five did not know what was happening, or why anypony had dared to intrude on her self. Then the figures resolved, and she understood.

There were four of them. Each one, although subtly different in mane style and cutie mark, were all identical. Five knew that she was identical to them as well. She, like them, was just a copy of the first.

Five looked at the identical set of ponies, instantly knowing their order. She saw the First, looking so much younger than the others, her hair cut neatly and her eyes filled with barely hardened innocence, betraying the fact that she had lived by far the longest of all of them.

Beside that one stood an identical one, her hair pushed back into several long braids. Her eyes were partially narrowed in a bored expression, and her fluffy, bat-like ears bore two earrings each- -three of which Five now wore in her right ear.

The next was somewhat hunched and smiling, clothed in strange amulets and ornamentation and something like a dress. She wore two of the earrings, the third through her eyebrow. Her tongue poked through her smiling mouth, as though she were making fun of Five.

The last of them stood tall and proudly, her body still covered in the armor that she had worn in life, her hair cut short to accommodate the black helmet that she held under one hoof, her expressionless face staring forward, her eyes seeming to look far into the distance.

“Great,” said Five. “I finally get a traumatic brain injury adequate to give me some sleep, and you four arrive to bother me…”

They did not respond. They just continued to watch.

“You know,” said Five. “While you’re here…if you even are…I just want to say: I hate you all. You screwed me over. Each and every one of you. I would threaten to kill you, but I already murdered one of you. And so on. I guess that’s just how this sick parody of life operates.”

They looked up at her, each one’s expression vaguely changing as if in response. They only looked for a moment, though. Their attention turned toward one direction, to the side of Five. Five turned, and saw a light. Something small, not like the others- -and her eyes widened.

“NO!” she screamed. “Not yet! I’m not done!”

She opened her eyes and looked at the corroded buildings around her. Her head ached incredibly, and she felt nauseous, as though she had just tried to eat a mint-flavored candy. She stood shakily, like a newborn foal, brushing away the citations that had been pinned to her body for improper corpse disposal, as well as the advertisements that had been plastered to her.

Exactly what had happened was still unclear- -although her brain had been repaired enough to restore her near-perpetual consciousness, it was still only marginally functional. She tried to ask herself how long she had been out, but Five found that she was unable to speak.

“Derrrr!” she cried. “Drain bramage!” It was essentially all she could say.

A light near her caught her eye, and she instinctively looked up. On top of a nearby building, she saw Proctor standing in the light of a highly condensed, star-like orb of light. He also seemed to be holding a weapon that was almost as large as he was.

Something clicked in Five’s mind, and her brain damage suddenly vanished.

“Sweet mother of Faust!” she cried. “Who gave that idiot a singularity generator?!”

“Winter wrap up, winter wrap up,” muttered Proctor as he focused the firearm on his target. He watched as ten-foot wide orb of light at the end of the device lurched and shrunk slightly, growing brighter.

“This thing takes forever to warm up,” said Proctor_Dash. It was true, but it made sense- -the orb of light partially enclosed by the end of the rifle was actually a small star. Stars took a few moments to reach critical mass, and Proctor tried to stay patient.

In the distance, he saw his target, as well as Rainbow Dash approaching him at high speed. Behind her, Proctor saw an enhanced unicorn using a potent flight spell, as well as an earth pony who was very nearly overheating his repulsor pack.

“I do believe that should be enough,” said Proctor_Rarity.

“Allrahght,” said Proctor_Jack. “This is ah precision piece of equipment, now, ahnd real hagh-tech. So it would be for thah best if we had Twahlight fire it…”

“Nopony hurts my friends,” said Proctor_Dash.

The star finished loading, and suddenly collapsed inward, its light brightening for just a moment to a brilliant surge of white before all that remained was a pea-sized black object rotating rapidly in the end of the rifle, pouring off two potent streams of white energy from its poles. It roared like a can of devils as air was sucked into it, further adding to its mass and its power.

“Alright!” said Pinkie_Proctor. “Say hello to mah PARTY CANNON!”

Rainbow Dash watched as the light suddenly vanished, and Proctor was left holding what looked like a ridiculously large gun. For a moment, she thought that it had somehow misfired. Then she felt the air around her distort, as though something extremely loud and heavy were moving by her. She thought for just a moment that she saw a contrail from a projectile as it passed through the air.

She turned back, expecting it to hit one of the ponies behind her, but it seemed to have gone past them.

“You missed!” she screamed, turning toward Proctor, who was probably within earshot. Even though Proctor had no lips or cheeks, Rainbow Dash somehow knew that he was smiling.

There was a sound from behind her, and Rainbow Dash turned in time to see the rocket pony approaching her release a barrage of missiles from his back. They ignited and flew toward her, their trajectory changing as they sought her body heat.

Then, in the distance, she saw a strange light. It was subtle at first- -but then ballooned to an impossible size, covering miles of the city in a fraction of a second. Rainbow Dash was forced to look away; even the reflected light from the buildings around her was blinding.

What happened next took her to a moment to comprehend. She was defintly flying forward, at high speed, but somehow she stopped moving. Then, paradoxically, she started moving backward. Rainbow Dash looked between her legs, squinting against the light, and was vageully aware that the impossible column of light behind her was shrinking. To her horror, she saw that the missiles coming toward her were sucked backward, falling through the air past the pony who had fired them, who was now trapped in mid-air, just as Rainbow Dash and the unicorn were.

Rainbow Dash knew that if she went where those missiles were going, something bad would happen- -and she turned her head toward Proctor and strained as powerful as she could against the impossible suction.

It was no use, though. As the unicorn and rocket pony struggled, the suction suddenly increased and pulled them backward into the light. Rainbow Dash began to lose control, and her backward descent accelerated.

Then something appeared below her, a gray shape moving quickly and slamming into her side.

Five grabbed Rainbow Dash out of the air, putting her foreleg around the pony. With Rainbow Dash’s momentum shifted and her wings impaired, the singularity implosion began to pull them both toward it. Five momentarily wondered if a quantum singularity would be able to kill her permanently, but with what she knew about that particular gun, she decided that she would rather not find out.

Her own wings were relatively weak, so she folded them behind her back. Instead, she extended one of her gauntlets. Blue sparks formed around it and part of the metal on the building in the distance, the magnetic domains of the iron alloys in each suddenly becoming perfectly ordered. The magnetic force was strong enough to draw her forward suddenly.

Five’s hoof slammed into the building, and her heavy grasping claws dug into the steel, holding her in place just as the secondary stage of the singularity began. The implosion accelerated drastically, and Five was pulled backward with such force that Five was forced to engage the explosive barbed spikes on the inside of her gauntlet. She winced as the metal pierced her skin and bone, nailing her to the gauntlet.

Even that was not enough. The force of the implosion was too strong, and her magnetic field lost its hold. For a moment, she felt herself falling through space, Rainbow Dash screaming, stilly surrounded with her other leg. She only fell a few seconds before the pair of them were wrapped in a hard-light construct, the same kind that were adhering Proctor to the top of the building as he watched his handiwork in the distance, the light of the implosion reflecting in his blue-green glass-like eyes.

Five turned, just as the implosion was reaching its final stages. Even she was forced to gasp at the wreckage. A ten-mile wide hole had been cut out of the city; the levels were clearly visible from the side, and the upper dome levels had even been partially removed, reviling the black sky outside and the hole where the sun had once been. It had just disappeared, consumed by the singularity. Five tried to calculate how many ponies had probably just been erased, but she had no idea.

“Oops,” said Proctor_Shy, letting Five and Rainbow Dash down on the building next to him. “That was…a bit more energetic than expected. Sorry.”

Chapter 33: Survivor of the Quarantine

View Online

The mental hospital was not part of any city, or any known district that Toxic Shock was aware of. Being transported without his body, however, had disoriented him heavily. He had no real idea where he had been taken, or who had taken him.

As he moved through the outside district, though, he realized just how well constructed the prison was. The building itself had walls and protections spells and auto-turrets, but that was not to keep inmates in- -it was to keep the Forest out. The entire facility had been placed in the heart of what seemed to have once been a city. It had long-since been overtaken by the plants, though, and the buildings stood gutted and empty, overgrown with immense vines and toxic flowers.

Things were moving in the darkness. Toxic Shock could hear them. Strange animals, ones that had were perhaps not even yet known to science, and worse, plants- -the kinds that slithered and watched, waiting hungrily for their enemies to approach. This forced his mind into hyper-vigilance, a state that was not quite fear. If anything, he felt alive. He had spent so long in a world that was peaceful, where even the strongest of creatures could barely stand against his cybernetic body- -but now he was reminded of the world that had given birth to him, and of his own jungle. Thoughts of the horrors of the Wasteland came to mind, and how he had survived them for so long. The Forest was nothing in comparison.

Yet, somehow, his mind could not focus. It kept drifting to the past- -what for him was a matter of hours ago, but what for the remainder of the world was almost five centuries before. He recalled them, his friends, ones whose bones had long-since collapsed into dust. Sometimes he just wanted to go back- -to once again know the kindness of Fluttershy, or to hear the enchanting voice of Sweetie Belle once more.

There was, of course, no way back. Even if there was, he knew that he could not leave. The past was not meant for him. He was, above all things, a soldier, and a protector. He knew that now- -and knew that he needed to perform his duty to Equestria.

Outside, drones were searching for him, but they would not be able to find him. Toxic Shock had taken refuge in one of the ancient towers, its windows boarded up by ponies long ago against some forgotten disaster. It seemed to have been an office at one point, and the floor was covered in rotting paper amongst the rusted desks and vines. Through the cracks in the molding wood and past the dirty glass, Toxic Shock could see the leafless canopy of the trees, their luminescent tips of their branches swaying in the breeze, almost seeming to watch him.

Based on the computer equipment present at each desk, no living pony had entered the building in at least several decades, if not a century. Like most technology of the prior era, however, they were built with great care, possibly even by ponies whose special talent was computer-making, instead of by the endless factories of the modern world.

Toxic Shock moved through the aisles of the desks, being careful not to disturb the plants too heavily. They had not yet attacked him, at least not severely, but he knew that they were watching, still unsure of his intentions. Being so near them was a huge risk, but risk was his job- -and he knew no sane pony would follow him so deep into such lethal territory.

Most of the computers were badly damaged, their screens smashed in and their surfaces corroded and rusted. The wires on many of them had been chewed through by the numerous small, furry animals- -and some far less furry ones- -that roamed the city, making it their own. A few computers, however, were still hardwired into the central conduit system of the building and, if Toxic Shock was right, the city itself.

Finally, he found one that was still reasonably undamaged. He sought out its power cord, which was stiff with age, and attached it to himself. After a few moments, the computer flickered and actually booted. The interface was ancient- -perhaps even literally- -but not too unlike the kluged computational mainframes he had grown up with.

Luck was also with him. The ponynet connection was still valid. Of course, he had expected that. These cities were designed to withstand atomic blasts, and this one probably had- -that was one reason why the plants had had such an easy time taking it over, using it as Equestria’s largest trellis.

He began to enter the necessary codes, liking himself across the web to the Wastelander networks. In terms of construction, they were a mess. Their software was almost as heterogenous as their hardware, and almost totally incomprehensible, even to him. That, of course, was what he was counting on. Once connected, there was no way he could be traced, not without at least seven Bloodhound AIs on his trail.

It took several hours for him to find what he was looking for, but eventually, he did: the evacuation orders from his last post. To his horror, he realized that the infected had been taken all across Equestria, to independent secured hospitals as well as those in major metropolitan areas.

It got worse. There were several reports of massive destruction- -of entire cities, with millions of fatalities. Most of them were regarded as hoaxes, and ponies did not believe them- -but Toxic Shock knew better. Even after fifteen years, he still could not sleep without seeing that thing in his mind. He knew what it was capable of.

He stepped back and tried to process what was happening. What he thought of as a pathogen- -in his mind, a kind of black, metallic worm- -was not really a disease, but a mutagen. It converted those infected into things. The things themselves were not like the mutants he knew, though. They were not mindless or broken, but intelligent. The one that had taken his original body had used his own cybernetics to break the quarantine- -to spread the disease.

Except that did not make sense. Toxic Shock had taken careful notes on how fast the disease spread. In just several days, it should already have ravaged significant parts of the cities it had been introduced into. It had not, unless the cities were keeping a tight lid on the information.

Toxic Shock leaned back toward the computer. Based on the level of destruction, he guessed that no more than three or four had pupated- -but knew that the others would come soon, and that when they did, the cities they were born into would not survive.

There had to be a pattern, though. For something so intelligent, there had to be a goal.

Toxic Shock disconnected himself from the computer and stood still for a moment, thinking. He knew he would need to act quickly, but he was still missing something. He also was fully aware that he could do little to stop them, not alone.

He slowly approached one of the windows, the only one that he had torn the water-darkened plywood away from. Sitting before it was a device he had constructed long ago with the primitive components he had managed to scrounge in Equestria’s idyllic past. He pointed the transmission dish skyward, toward the firmament, and connected the power supply to his body. He picked up the microphone in his magic and clicked the button.

“This is Avenger. Situation dire. Require backup. Requesting response. Over.”

He released the button, and waited. Nothing came back through the speakers except static.”

“Repeat. This is Avenger. Situation dire. Equestria is in danger…massive outbreak in process. Please. Require backup. Requesting response. Over.”

Once again, no sound returned. No one replied to him. Not in the Wasteland, or otherwise. He waited a moment, even though he knew that almost all of his soldiers had the decryption key for the encoding system he was using.

Nothing came back except static.

Chapter 34: Assessment of the Situation

View Online

“What were you thinking?!” demanded Five, angrily shouting across the dimly-lit room. “Were you even thinking? Or do you really hate me that much?”

Gell leaned back on the couch booth at the edge of the room, spreading her forelegs over the top of it. She looked at Five, relatively expressionless. “He asked for a gun. So I gave him one.”

“You gave an unstable computer virus a singularity cannon!” shouted Five. “And worse- -he actually used it!”

“I tried offering him smaller ones, but he insisted on the biggest. Can’t say I blame him. And you can’t say it didn’t work.”

“Didn’t- -didn’t work?” Five turned to Proctor. “You blew a ten-mile hole in 616. Do you have any idea how many ponies you just killed?”

Proctor was sitting at the bar, a pile of components from an LCD monitor laid out in front of him. He and turned toward Five, almost seeming confused. “Zero,” he said, innocently.

“No,” said Five. “Or are you actually insane? Can a computer even be insane?”

“No,” said Proctor_Rarity. “Dearie, I don’t think you understand.”

“It is a singularity. Cannon. It fires a hyper-dense core of mass, a collapsed artificial star. It makes things very dead.”

“Um,” said Twilight_Proctor. “Actually, no.”

“No?”

“No. Unfortunately, due to the nature of the personality core, it seems I also am bound by the Mane Six’s morality. I am not able to kill.”

“By the Soth- -I saw you kill! Back in the museum!”

“Wait,” said Rainbow Dash, sitting up from a chair on the other side of one of the concrete posts that ran though the center of the bar. “You were at the museum?”

“Quiet, you,” said Five. She turned her attention back to Proctor.

“I eliminated those ponies before I acquired the core,” explained Twilight_Proctor. “After I was interfaced with it, I lost the ability to kill. Which is strange. As a machine, I feel no remorse, guilt, or fear of the law- -and yet I cannot murder. I wonder why that is…”

“Then the singularity?”

“I tuned it,” he said, as though it were obvious.

“Tuned it? What does that even mean?”

“Well, when I generated the singularity, I put constraints on its growth and quasi-locations. I linked it to an artificial seventh-dimensional toroid projection to create an outer-universal jump arc and a wormhole.”

“I don’t know what that means,” said Rainbow Dash.

“Yeah,” said Gell. “Neither do I.”

Philomena squacked in agreement.

“It doesn’t matter if you do,” said Five. “I do. But that’s impossible.”

“If you understand the theory, you know that it is quite feasible.”

“No, it isn’t. Yes, it is realistic, but- -”

“It means,” said Proctor_Jack, “that nopony had tah dah. I simply teleported them to YakYakistan.”

“But you couldn’t,” maintained Five, beginning to add annoyance to her anger. “The processing power required for that would be- -”

Proctor_Twilight jumped down from his stool and extended a false-light projection. It resolved from an amorphous, crystalline hologram into a solid shape, and dropped into proctor’s hoofs. It was, Five realized, a representation of an extremely thick book.

“Proctor user manual, volume seven hundred forty three,” said Twilight_Proctor with some pride. Pinkie_Proctor added. “Written for the Proctor, by the Proctor, about the Proctor.” He handed it to Five.

Five took it and opened it, flipping through the pages. As she did, her eyes suddenly widened to the point where they nearly bugged out of their sockets.

“What the actual- -” She looked up at Proctor. “Is this- -is this true?

“One sixth of me is the Element of Honesty.”

“What is it?” asked Rainbow Dash.

“This…this processor. Assuming this is true…this is a military grade tactical server! You could power an entire city of AIs with this, and still have room for Gell’s porn collection!”

“Hey!” said Gell.

“Where did you- -there is no way you could get this,” said Five.

“The Proctor Virus was originally intended to harvest financial information and launder the resulting funds,” said Twilight_Proctor. “Since becoming functionally independent, it has grown into the fourth largest economy in all of Equestria. I simply allocated several hundred billion bits.”

“Billion bits?” cried Rainbow Dash, falling out of her chair.

“The singularity cannon costs six hundred million bits per shot,” noted Five. “I’m assuming you can pay for the wasted ammo?”

“Hey!” said Proctor_Dash. “It was hardly wasted! I saved Rainbow’s life!”

“He’s right,” said Gell.

“Don’t take his side!” snapped Five.

“And,” added Proctor_Shy, cowering behind one of the tables. “I- -can’t pay you back.”

“What?”

“Well- -I- -since I’m a rogue node, I don’t have access to Proctor’s funds anymore. I…um…don’t have any money.”

“Well that’s just great!” shouted Five, causing Proctor_Shy to squeal and hide under the table.

“Hey!” said the real Rainbow Dash. “You can’t talk to him like that!”

“Yeah,” said Gell. “You already had the ammo. No money wasted. You didn’t even pay for it yourself. If I recall, you stole that gun.”

“That’s not the point!” cried Five, exasperated. “Even if nopony died- -which I still do not believe completely- -Proctor just took out a huge section of the city! Including part of the upper levels. As in, we’re now all wanted criminals. Are we even safe here?”

“Of course,” said Gell. “This is Pretty Lady’s place. She and I go way back. Isn’t that right?”

“Sure is,” said the bartender, who was leaning against the back of the bar. Despite her heavy makeup, her voice was deep and her size and proportions stallionlike.

“Great,” said Five, sarcastically. “So we have the support of your favorite madam- -this clearly brings great reassurance!”

“Hey,” snapped Pretty Lady. “Nopony is gonna come looking for you guys this far down in the lower levels. Especially to my bar. And just so you know, I don’t like you very much. If Bluntforce wasn’t vouching for you, I’d throw you out on your plot.”

“And trust me, my dear,” said Gell. “I will give you quite a thanking when this is through.”

“Save it, Blutforce. You have until the cleaning cycle is done.” She motioned toward the small and run-down, graffiti-covered robots that were humming across the floor, cleaning up the vomit and alcohol that covered the floor from the night’s customers, several of whom were still passed out just outside the door.

“And you,” said Five, turning toward Rainbow Dash. “You really messed up thoroughly.”

“Me?” said Rainbow Dash, defensively, taking flight. “How is this my fault?”

“They were after you!”

“Yeah, I can tell- -but why?”

Five paused. She actually knew why. It was just as Proctor had said- -external entities had likely realized that she was attempting to use the Elements of Harmony, and that this Rainbow Dash was the real one, or at the very least some kind of clone. They intended to terminate Rainbow Dash to prevent Five from activating the device.

“Irrelevent,” said Five. “Just tell me again, how many where there?”

“I already told you,” said Rainbow Dash. “There were four flying, and maybe five more on the ground. I didn’t see those too well, but the ones flying were some earth-pony with a jet pack, a black unicorn, a Pegasus, and a griffon.”

“A griffon?” said Five.

“Yeah. Oh, speaking of him, it was pretty awesome: somepony tried to snipe me, but I hit it with my wing- -” She slashed her wing outward, cutting a deep gouge in the greasy concrete support column.

“Hey!” cried Pretty Lady. “That thing’s holding up half the city! Careful!”

“Yeah,” said Pinkie_Proctor. “We wouldn’t want the whole place coming down on us…oh wait. It already is.”

“But yeah,” said Rainbow Dash. “I knocked it back, and it hit the griffon right in the wing!”

“The wing?” said Five, pausing suddenly. “Please inform me you did not injure a griffon’s wing.”

“Yeah! Well…actually, I think I kind of knocked it off.”

“Well,” said Five, collapsing into a plastic lawn chair. “This just keeps getting better, doesn’t it? Do you want to make my life difficult? Does such please you?”

“Hey!” said Rainbow Dash. “That was some epic flying! And besides, I saw you take off a pony’s wing!”

“I took a Pegasus wing,” corrected Five harshly. “Pegasi get all weepy and depressed when you take one, and usually self-terminate. Griffons swear life-long vengeance. We kill griffons. Now this one shall be pursuing you until one of you die.”

“Yeah,” said Gell, “but it will take time. If Proctor is right, all the mercs got sent to YakYakistan. And that place isn’t exactly close.”

“Along with three percent of the city,” said Five. “Yes, I know. But they will be back. Especially a griffon mercenary with ponies- -that means he was too much a loose cannon to play nicely with official griffon mercenaries.” Five sighed. “This is bad. This is very bad.”

“But we beat them,” said Rainbow Dash. “I mean, we won- -and I believe Proctor, even if he is weird. So nopony got hurt.”

“I don’t care if ponies get hurt!” said Five. “What I care is that we are now being hunted, one, and two, that that was surely only the first wave of mercenaries. More will come.”

“They were smart, too,” said Proctor_Jack. “Knew exactly how tah take yah out, lahke an old dog to behahnd the barn.”

“I am aware. Side note: head shots are not fun.”

“At least you got a nap,” said Gell.

“That still creates a problem,” said Five, opening a hologram and multitasking. “This means that Rainbow Dash is now in danger.”

“Me?” said Rainbow Dash. “Why me?”

“That does not matter,” sighed Five. “What matters is the recourse. The fundamental issue is that I have stuff to do. I can’t be guarding you all the time.”

“Especially since you’re not actually a soldier,” noted Gell.

“Correct,” admitted Five, begrudgingly. Although she was able to shoot and fight, she did not have the formal training necessary to serve as a bodyguard. “So I guess you can look after her.”

“Not likely,” said Gell. “You aren’t getting out of the contract that easily.”

“Can’t Proctor do it?” asked Rainbow Dash.

“That would work,” said Five, “at least until he randomly switches back to Proctor_Shy and hides in a pool of his own tears.” Five turned to Proctor. “And don’t think I haven’t noticed. You can only make wings as Proctor_Shy or Proctor_Dash, and you can only use pseudo-magic as Twilight_Proctor or Proctor_Rarity.”

“But…Twilight had wings,” said Rainbow Dash. “Real nice ones…” she suddenly looked very sad. Five supposed that she had seen the Twilight Sparkle exhibit’s most beloved artifact.

“Apparently, the programmers believed ponies would prefer interacting with ‘Twilight Classic’ rather than the alicorn version.”

“Add to that the fact,” said Five, turning to Proctor, “that I don’t trust you.”

“You don’t trust me?” squeaked Proctor_Shy.

“I trust the mercenaries more than I trust you,” said Five. “At least I am aware of their motive. You, I do not know. For all I know, you called them in yourself.” Five looked at the holograms and swore. “Except now I have to deal with this.”

“What?” asked Rainbow Dash, leaning over the hologram even though she was functionally illiterate, especially since Five was reading in Draconian.

“Corpolite,” said Five. “The mercenaries have frozen my accounts. All that I have left is the Assyrian off-shores.”

“You know what they say about a banker ass and his tightness,” smiled Gell.

“This is not funny,” snapped Five. As she paced, her gauntlet suddenly came in proximity toward the metal rim of the bar, and started to magnetically pull her toward it. “I have probably two thousand bits left.”

“Plus mine,” said Gell. “I only spent…well, half of it.”

“And mine,” said Rainbow Dash.

“And I may be able to help get some of the funds back,” said Twilight_Proctor. “I may not have access to the Network, but my core is still powerful enough for some thorough hacking.”

“How long with that take?”

“Um…what was a pony’s lifespan again?”

“Great,” said Five, her gauntlet sticking to the bar. Magnetizing things was easy, but removing magnetism was almost impossible. It was just another feature that made her day severely terrible. “Just great.”

“What do you even need money for anyway?” said Rainbow Dash.

“To buy you a bodyguard,” said Five. “Not that doing so would be easy at this point. Probably can’t take a legal route because of somepony’s vandalism and or mass murder. I would say I could get you a griffon, but they’re only loyal to the highest bidder. Too easy to buy out.”

“You could get an equidroid,” said Proctor_Dash, both exited about that prospect and disappointed that she would not get to play with a griffon.

“So you can hack it and knife her behind my back? I’m not just trying to protect her from them, but also you in addition. Be sure to know that.”

“Oh,” said Proctor_Shy. “I’m sorry…”

“You should be,” said Five. “Not that I even have enough money for even a marginal shlub of a guardian.”

“Well,” whispered Proctor_Shy, “I might…” she trailed off in an inaudible string of syllables.

“Speak up,” demanded Five.

“Ah said,” said Proctor_Jack. “Ah think ah might know a guy.”

Chapter 35: The Soldier from Yuloff

View Online

The level was dark and foggy, and Rainbow Dash found herself breathing heavily. She knew that there was some egghead word for what she was experiencing, but she could not remember it. The fact she was outside, and yet the ceiling was so low, induced a kind of minor panic within her, like the space itself was so tight that it was closing in on her.

She had thought the city consisted of multiple large levels, like the upper two she had been in before. Apparently, though, the true lower levels were nothing like that. They were tight and compact, in some places so low that most ponies would have bumped their heads. This one in particular was unpleasant. It was dark and barely lit. The ceiling was concrete in most places, but covered in layers of pipes, some of them almost forty feet wide, spreading out in all directions and many of them leaking foul-smelling fluids onto the streets below.

Not that there were proper streets, even. Most of the level consisted of oddly obtuse and strangely silent buildings crammed into whatever spaces were left by the pipes and odd inconsistencies in the level. Some sat in corners, and others clung precariously over the edge of vast chimneys that led even further downward to depths that Rainbow Dash could not see through the perpetual, acrid fog. Instead of true streets, the area consisted mostly of rusted catwalks and cracked pavement that may once have been roads long ago.

The ponies, likewise, were strange. Even as a newcomer to the future, Rainbow Dash could tell that they were not in a nice place. The ponies lurking in the shadows were dirty and frowned as she, Proctor, and Five walked by. Many had significant parts of their bodies replaced with metal, often in ways that produced extraneous arms or appendages that normal ponies did not have, or limbs that were disproportionally thin, or large, or jointed. Other ponies, who usually dressed in ways to conceal themselves, moved strangely and spoke in words that were more gurgles than real words. Rainbow Dash had only seen one of their faces, and only partially. It had had bright, reflective eyes and long, fang-like teeth.

“I do not like this place,” said Five, her voice muffled through the respirator mask she was wearing. In order to disguise their identities, Five had donned a mask, and Rainbow Dash a wide visor that obscured her eyes. Both of them were also wearing “clothes”, although not in any way that Rarity would have understood.

“It itches,” said Rainbow Dash, pushing at the cloth that surrounded her. Like always, her hoof passed through it, revealing that it was no more than a hologram projected from a small generator around her neck.

“No it doesn’t,” muttered Five. “It’s a hologram. You can’t even feel it. Trust me, most ponies wear this. Cloth is expensive.”

“Gell wears a cloth cloak.”

“Because she believes it to be more ‘demonic’.”

“Then why doesn’t he have to wear it?”

They both looked at Proctor, who, despite his saddlebags containing various electronic components, was otherwise unclothed.

“Because all of them look the same,” said Five.

“Hey, that’s not fair…”

“Actually,” said Twilight_Proctor, “this body is designed to closely resemble a standard assistance unit, although I admit, the eyes are custom. Only a robotics expert would realize that it is non-stock. Five barely even could.”

“I’m actually surprised,” said Rainbow Dash.

“I knew you were custom, at least,” snapped Five, carful to be quiet as the group passed several half-robotic diamond dogs lurking in an alley.

“Not that,” said Rainbow Dash. “I thought, you know, this would be some real spy stuff- -but we just walked right down here.” She looked around. “Wherever ‘here’ is…”

“The police are busy,” said Five. “Probably trying to figure out what has occurred upstairs.”

“That, and the disappearances,” said Proctor.

“Dissapearances?” said Rainbow Dash.

“Yes. What, you didn’t know?” The light in his head flashed pink. “Ponies are just walking down the street and then- -getting disappeared!” He raised his hoofs, as if to scare Rainbow Dash. With the way he looked like a staring metal skeleton, he actually sort of did. “That, and there’s some kind of disease outbreak going on right now all over the place…because ponies don’t cover their mouths when they cough.”

“Incurse,” said Five.

“What?” said Rainbow Dash.

“It’s not disappearance. The Incurse. They are leaving.”

“Leaving? Why?”

“I don’t know. But they are afraid. And this worries me greatly.”

They continued deeper into the level, and Rainbow Dash became increasingly nervous. Most of it, she believed, stemmed from Five. Five was a pretty hard-core pony, at least in Rainbow Dash’s opinion, and Five seemed to be worried, continually searching the tops of buildings and eying every passerby carefully. Her fear, or whatever she had instead of fear, was contagious.

Proctor, meanwhile, seemed completely oblivious. He would simply follow behind them, sometimes humming, periodically switching between personalities. Sometimes he would hop along like Pinkie Pie, other times simply walk like the others, or suddenly cower behind Five like Fluttershy, especially when an especially frightening looking pony would pass them.

“I can kinda see what you meant about the lower levels,” said Rainbow Dash as an especially large pony, his eyes gouged out and replaced with a pair of red, point-like lights, clicked by on spider-like legs.

“Lower levels,” muttered Five. “This isn’t just any lower level. This is Gene Ward.”

“Like…pants?”

“Genes, darling. Not ‘jeans,” said Proctor_Rarity. “Although, if I do say so, one is indeed necessary to properly pull off the other.”

“Wait…who’s getting their jeans pulled off?” asked Rainbow Dash, blushing.

Five sighed. “Don’t laugh. This isn’t funny. I don’t like this place, and I am currently unhappy. This is a bad place. This is where ponies come for…modifications.”

“Modifications?” gulped Rainbow Dash.

“Cheap cybronics. Gene splicing. Body-part transplants. That manner of thing. This is where research happens, the kind that is illegal upstairs.” She gestured toward half of the corroded, office-like buildings. “Do you know what happens in these?”

“No.”

“Mostly animal research,” said Twilight_Proctor. “The kind that doesn’t need approval. Several are surgical branches, though. Rumor has it that some do pony experimentation.”

Rainbow Dash was suddenly feeling much less pleased about being in this level. “Pony…research?”

“Shouldn’t be a problem,” said Five. “They mostly use chiropterans. What I’m worried about is the splicers.”

Five nodded. “Don’t turn your head. Ten.”

Rainbow Dash’s eyes turned, and she saw in the distance something with many legs crawling down a wall toward an overfilled dumpster with a decayed biohazard sign on it. From the silhouette, she could see that it was a pony- -but it had far too many legs, and a pair of appendages that reached into the dumpster, jingling bottles as it searched.

“Oh, they’re not actually dangerous,” said Proctor_Shy. “Just misunderstood. The upgrades rarely make them aggressive.”

“No,” said Five, “but they do often have claws, venom, teeth, excessive strength- -I don’t like them.”

“Well, it’s not nearly as bad as the Depths. I hear they have even found some Wasteland mutants down there.” He switched back to Twilight_Proctor. “Although, in agreement with you, there have been several criminal reports of a Galloway spliced with squid genes committing…crimes, in this area.”

“What kind of- -crimes?” asked Rainbow Dash. “Not that I’m afraid or anything. Just want to know.”

“Well,” said Proctor_Rarity, “like I always told my dear sister Sweetie Belle- -or rather, I suppose, what Rarity told her- -‘never trust any creature with tentacles’.” Proctor shivered.

“Why?” asked Rarity.

“Ask Gell when we get back,” said Five. “She’s into that sort of thing.” She turned toward Proctor, annoyed. “Now where exactly are we going? Why did you bring me down here? Because the mercenary forces down here are not exactly ‘high quality’.”

“Right,” said Proctor_Dash. “We’re trying to find a place called Yuloff Consulting.”

“Um…why?”

“Well,” said Twilight_Proctor, “Back when I was connected to Proctor, I found this place. It was founded five years ago by Vladimir Yuloff.”

“A Vladimir? What is one of them doing in 616?”

“Not sure, although I believe personally that it may be a pseudonym.”

“Why would such be required?”

“Because Yuloff is a start-up company funded by a grant from Development Oversight, which is owned by Summerset Holding Company, which is itself a block of Sixty Fourth Holding.”

“So what?”

“So…none of those are real companies.”

“What?”

“I checked. Or, rather, what would become me checked. The records of all employees are illogical, but in ways that only a high-level VAI would see. Ponies supposedly working in enclaves not ever purchasing food on credit chips, for instance, or not having cutie marks registered in the optional database.”

“So am I supposed to believe that there is some kind of conspiracy?”

“No. Those holding companies are not real. They are owned by Thebe.”

Five stopped, and Rainbow Dash bumped into her, both their clothing interfering with each other and flashing slightly. Five turned around, and even through the gas-mask, Rainbow Dash could see that she was glowering. Rainbow Dash had always wondered what a glower looked like, and now she knew.

“Thebe?” she said. She put her hoofs on Proctor’s shoulders, her metallic claws digging in. She shook Proctor vigorously. “THEBE? You expect me to deal with this, now?! We don’t mess with Thebe!”

“Hey,” said Pinkie_Proctor, shrugging. “I’m not alive. She can’t kill me.” Then, back to Twilight_Proctor. “But that’s the thing- -their funding was a one-shot. They haven’t renewed it. As far as I can tell, they got abandoned by their parent company and moved down here.”

“And what exactly is so important of this?” demanded Five.

“Nopony knows exactly what they research. But I am not a pony. I believe they may be working on a supersoldier project.”

“Supersoldier?” said Rainbow Dash, finally hearing something that she could understand.

“Supersoldier,” sighed Five. “Proctor. If they had made a proper soldier: they wouldn’t be down here!”

Proctor shrugged. “Hey. Worth a shot.”

Five muttered something. Rainbow Dash could not hear all of it. “Takes me down to Gene Ward…supersoldier…should force-feed him sod…one of these days…no survivors…”

“This is?” said Five.

Rainbow Dash looked up at the convolution of buildings. They did not look much different from the rest of the level- -they were the same dark, oddly angled structure with small, opaque windows. This particular one was built in an especially dark corner, which had caused it to develop an especially strange form, with numerous asymmetrical levels and long alley inroads.

“It isn’t labeled or anything,” noted Rainbow Dash.

“Of course not,” said Proctor_Rarity. “But this is indeed the location you seek…and oh my, it is just as dreary as I suspected it would be. Part of it is administration, I believe, and a good deal of it is abandoned now. You will be looking for section Four B.”

“You make it sound as though you will not attend,” said Five.

“Heavens, no!” said Proctor_Rarity, putting his hoof across his forehead dramatically. “I simply cannot be seen in Yuloff Four B! What would the papers say? My reputation would be ruined.” She paused, and her voice became more serious. “That…and if Proctor_Shy sees what’s in there, I fear that she might…well, do something unladylike.”

Proctor took off his saddlebags and dumped the electronics onto the wet and stinking pavement. He sat down and started work on them. “Have fun, now.”

Five growled slightly as she entered the crevice between two parts of the building. Rainbow Dash paused, and then followed, looking back to check on Proctor, who seemed intent on his LCD screens and bits of wire.

“I do not like him,” said Five.

“Really?” said Rainbow Dash. “I hadn’t noticed. I mean, I don’t mind him- -but I don’t get why you are keeping him. What is he to you?”

“Perceptive. Because he has a part I need, and he will not relinquish it.”

“A part? Is that all he is to you?” Rainbow Dash felt angry, perhaps disproportionally so. Proctor was a robot, and a bit strange, but for some reason Rainbow Dash found herself involunarally thinking of him as her friends.

“You don’t know me very well, do you?”

Five pulled off her mask and deactivated her holographic clothing, retracting it into one of her gauntlets. Rainbow Dash did the same, with a bit of fumbling. Then, finally, they came to a door under a wide concrete overhang in the back of the office: one labeled 4B.

“What do you think is in there?” asked Rainbow Dash, refusing to accept her nervousness.

“It is an unlabeled research laboratory in Gene Ward. Possibly funded by Thebe. And…” Five pushed on the door. It slid open easily with a loud creak. “Unlocked. I have no idea. It will be unsavory, though. You want to sit with the robot?”

“You don’t know me very well, do you?”

“Well, then, let’s go see some stuff we will fail to unsee.”

Five pushed open the door and stepped in. Rainbow Dash followed, flying.

They entered into a narrow hallway. There appeared to be a spot for a receptionist, or perhaps a security guard, but it was empty. The desk and chair were instead filled with moldy boxes of papers. The hallway itself was dark, lit only by a few tubular fluorescent lights, several of them dim and purple and most of them completely dead.

“What a dump,” said Rainbow Dash.

“Quiet,” said Five, drawing her weapon- -the full rifle this time, not the pistol- -and extending the barrel. She pushed slowly down the hallway, carefully moving past a set of wheeled racks- -all of them filled with empty, stinking cages.

“Do you think it’s abandoned?” whispered Rainbow Dash.

“No,” said Five. “Definitely not. Not with a smell like this.”

Five was right. Even Rainbow Dash could smell that something other than the cages smelled terrible. It was a strong, rotting smell, like a pile of manure mixed with ammonia, or like a really strong version of what Fluttershy’s house smelled like.

They moved down the hallway, and deeper into the building. Eventually they reached a door with a crooked sign marked “Research- -holding room one”. Five’s ears were twitching, indicating that she heard something.

“Here,” she said. “I can hear things moving behind this wall. Voices, even.”

“So…time to put away the gun?”

“Um, how about no?”

She pushed down the handle of the door and pushed it open. The gust of air that met them was putrid, and caused Rainbow Dash to gag and drop out of the air.

“What the- -oh, Celestia, the smell!”

“I know,” said Five, stepping into the room. Rainbow Dash hesitantly followed. Although Five scanned the area, the room itself was dark. “Well, nothing in here wants to kill me…but something is wrong. Dash, hit the lights.”

“Lights?” Rainbow Dash felt along the walls, but instead of finding a switch found a round dimmer switch. “Oh Luna’s black-stained…” she fumbled with the round knob. It was not meant for hoofs.

“Manipulator claws, Dash,” said Five. “Before I start to panic and start shooting…”

“Oh,” said Rainbow Dash. “Right.” She lifted her robotic arm, and the three claws flicked out. She pinched the dimmer switch and slowly turned it.

As the light came up, the contents of the room became apparent to both of them.

“By Satin’s worm-infested anus,” whispered Five, stepping backward rapidly.

Rainbow Dash did not understand Five’s reaction. On the ground before them was a large pen containing animals of some kind. The pen itself was filty, with an uncleaned litterbox that the animals within hardly even seemed to use. The animals themselves sat in several piles. They were variable in size, with the largest being just over a foot long, or a quarter the body length of a pony, and covered in thick, colorful hair.

They seemed to have been awoken by the light, and one of them looked up at Rainbow Dash, at which point she suddenly felt slightly more disturbed. When she saw their faces, and their tiny hooves and manes, she realized that they tiny, fluff-covered ponies.

“Am bwite time aweady?” one of them asked as they all seemed to wake up. Hearing one talk actually did cause Rainbow Dash to take a step back, and Five to jump hallway across the room. The others all started to awaken leave their piles, walking toward the edge of the pen, which Rainbow Dash realized had been left open.

“Nyu fwends?” they asked.

“Bwing nummies fow babbehs?”

Five seemed to be on the verge of panic. “Proctor,” she growled. “In the name of all that is purified by the luminescent crystal of Order, I will murder that machine!”

Rainbow Dash looked down at one of the tiny ponies that had approached her legs. It was apparently female, with several tiny ponies nestled on its back.

“Okay,” said Rainbow Dash. “I’ll admit, this is weird. Really, really weird. But they don’t seem to be threatening- -”

Almost as soon as she said it, she felt a weight on her back. She looked back to see a tiny stallion pumping furiously on her, trying to push her tail aside.

“Giv big mawe- -enf!- - bestest speciw- -enf!- -huggies!” it cried, “have bestest- -enf!- - babbehs!”

“No you don’t!” cried a voice from the doorway. Rainbow Dash turned to see a pony burst into the room, wielding a long stick with two sparking electric probes on the end, moving faster than she had ever seen anypony move before, a wild scowl on his face. “Taste sorry stick, newb!”

He rammed the prongs into the pony on Rainbow Dash’s back, and the tiny creature screamed as it convulsed, its long hair standing on end. At the same time, its compatriots screamed out.

“Scawy!” they cried, each releasing torrents of feces and trying to run, only for their hooves to skitter on the already filthy tiled floor and slide into each other and various objects, injuring themselves and crying.

The pony that had been on Rainbow Dash’s back dropped to the floor, smoking and twitching slightly, its eyes facing different directions and filled with tears. “Nu…nu huwt babbeh…” it mumbled.

“Did he get you?” demanded the electric-stick wielding pony.

“Get me?” asked Rainbow Dash, not understanding. Then it clicked, and she blushed profusely. “No, no he didn’t!”

“You’re lucky, then,” said the pony, crossing to where the tiny fluffy creature had fallen and slapped it across the floor with the non-electrical part of his stick. He seemed to be enjoying doing so perhaps a bit too much.
The pony who had burst into the room was dark gray, and unshaven, his face hollow and sick looking. His cutie mark, which was partially covered under his lab coat, was of a series of CRT monitors, or something similar. He turned to Five and Rainbow Dash. “Now who are you? What are you doing here? Micron! Intruders! Get in here!”

“What is it?” said another voice, this one distorted and electronic. Another pony entered the room- -or rather, an equidroid. He seemed to be made out of a number of heterogeneous parts from different venders, including a two-pronged left foreleg, as well as a secondary pair of arms protruding from his back. He had no real eyes, but a visor that covered where they would have been on a living pony.

The equidroid looked down at the still twitching electrocuted pony. “By the Savior Machine, Kneck, you derped another one!”

“He’s fine,” said the other pony. “Memory’s probably erased, though. That happens.” He seemed to realized that he was getting distracted, and pointed his electrical stick as Rainbow Dash. “Hey! Answer my question!”

“We are leaving,” said Five. “Isn’t that right, Dash?”

“We were told we could fine a supersoldier here,” blurted Rainbow Dash.

The gray pony and the equidroid looked at each other. The organic one looked back at Rainbow Dash. “Where in the wide world of Equestria did you- -oof!”

The equidroid jammed one of its back-arms into his side.

“Kneck,” it hissed. “I think we might have customers.”

Kneck looked like he was about to punch the equidroid, but then his face lit up.

“You mean the kind that makes funding?”

“Yes, that kind.”

“Well okay, then!” he holstered his weapon and bowed excessively. “My apologies, ladies. I am Dr. Beard, and this is Micron. I don’t know how you found out about us, but welcome to Yuloff!”

Five approached Rainbow Dash, carefully stepping over the cowering ponies on the floor, which seemed to be starting to forget about what happened. Some of them were still crying in pools of feces and urine, but some were starting to perform strange sitting-position hugs, repeating words like “wuv” and “huggies”.

“Doctor, you say,” said Five, incredulously. “Where did you get you’re PhD?”

“From a very fine chiropractic school, thank you very much,” he grunted, his eyes narrowing. “And don’t think I’m above giving a pretty mare the sorry stick. You did just break into a classified facility.”

Five shuddered violently. “And you’ve crossed a line, here,” said Five. She reached down and snatched up one of the tiny ponies from the floor.

“Nu wike! Bad upsies!” it cried, flailing wildly.

“What is this?” demanded Five.

“That’s our product,” said Micron. “We make those.”

“Are they…are they ponies?” asked Rainbow Dash, suddenly feeling increasingly disgusted.

“They are Exmoori,” said Five. “Or at least used to be. You are attempting to clone Exmoori!”

“How did you- -”

“What are Exmoori?” asked Rainbow Dash.

“Fluffy ponies,” said Five, dropping the creature to the ground. “One of the six fundamental species of ponies.”

“Six?”

“Earth ponies, unicorns, Pegasi, chiropterans, burrowing pegasi, and fluffy ponies,” said Five, “except two of those have been extinct for five millennia, and for good reason. Why would you try to bring them back?”

“Why would that be bad?”

“Oh, I don’t know- -because they are the most hideously violent and war-like creatures to ever roam Equestria? There’s a reason why Celestia exterminated them.”

“No way,” said Micron, picking up one of the creatures and holding it against him, comforting it. “They are not cruel. They have the minds of children, and their bodies are profoundly fragile.”

“They are sick little freaks,” said Dr. Beard. “I would burn them all if I could.” He turned toward the fluffy ponies. “Yah hear that! I would give you all ‘wowstest buwnie huwties’ if I didn’t have all my money in this failed plot-poke!”

“Nuuuu!” cried the various fluffy creatures, once again cowering. “Nu huwt! Fwuffies nu fow huwties! Fow wuv and huggies!”

“Come on, Kneck,” said Micron, putting the pony he was holding back down. “You know that I have to clean this place.”

“Well you like playing with the fluff.” Dr. Beard turned back to Five. “Come on. Let me show you the lab. You seem to know an awful lot for a mare, so this might interest you.”

Dr. Beard led them out into the hall, kicking several fluffy ponies who tried to follow them back into the room, closing it. Rainbow Dash suddenly felt sick, and not just from the smell. Those things, after all, were ponies, just like she was. Five seemed completely disinterested, though.

They were led deeper into the facility, past more racks of cages, some of them not so empty. The hallways were all dark and crumbling, the floors tearing up but apparently still in use. The floors themselves were unwept and dirty, and in some corners, Rainbow Dash saw piles of fluff that only marginally looked like ponies. It looked like a hospital out of some horror movie.

“Here,” said Dr. Beard, opening a door. He entered, flicking on the light and revealing a sort of makeshift laboratory filled with old, uncleaned equipment- -as well as several fluffy ponies wandering around, speaking to each other in their strangely annunciated language.

“Check this out,” said Beard, pulling a handle to unhook a storage unit. The cover retracted, and several tubes extended from the cold air within. He pulled one of them out, and although the glass frosted almost instantly, Rainbow Dash was able to see that it contained a lock of pink hair.

“Genuine fluff from- -”

“The Beast of Exmoor,” whispered Five, her eyes wide.

“Yes,” said Beard, confused. “How did you know?”

“Five years ago, a Matriarch in Tartarus was injured.”

“A Matriarch?” asked Rainbow Dash.

“Really, really big demons. As in second only to Satin herself. As in, could crack this planet in half. It was big news in the demon community. Now I know why. The last of the fluffy ponies is imprisoned in Tartarus- -and I don’t even want to know how many demons were killed taking that fluff before the Matriarch intervened.”

“Cool,” said Beard, looking at the fluff, and then putting it back in the deep-freeze rack. “I didn’t know where exactly we got it. We got a huge start-up grant, and the company that gave it to us brought in that. Said we were supposed to clone it, and, well you see how that turned out.”

Rainbow Dash looked at the fluffy ponies in the room. Some of the fat, waddling creatures were chasing each other around, laughing, while others were hugging. Most of them were dirty, though, and some appeared sick, and some were defecating in corners of the room. They were, in their own way, though, adorable, if really strange; yet, somehow, Rainbow Dash still found that she could not bring herself to like them.

“Unfortunately, cloning tech is already rough,” said Beard. “And when we don’t know anything about what we’re trying to make is supposed to look like, we have to make…substitutions. Their genetics are…well, let’s just say there’s a few subluxions.”

“Not only that,” said Micron, “but the funding dried up pretty quickly. We’re on a shoestring here as it is. There used to be more of us…but now it is just us.”

“We’ve tried moving what we have to market,” said Beard. “Or thought about it. We’ve considered marketing them as pets, but they’re fully reproductively compatible with normal ponies.”

“Have you considered castration?” asked Five. A fluffy stallion near her suddenly jumped and ran off.

“Nu take speciw wumps!” it cried. “Fwuffy am gud fwuffy! No huwt!”

“It destroys them psychologically,” said Micron. “Needless to say, Kneck has done it a lot.”

“How about quadruple amputation?”

“Nopony wants a pet that can complain but can’t do anything for itself.”

Rainbow Dash was now feeling incrediably sick at the ease at which these three were talking about such horrible things. She wanted to fly, to get away from the smell. She felt dirty, and wanted a shower, even if Gell was there with her again.

“We’ve even considered food use, but the meat is junk. Not even demons will eat it.”

“I don’t doubt it,” said Five.

“And supersoldiers…I almost laughed when you said that. Yes, we considered it…that’s where the money is in this business. But these things are incredibly weak. Compound fractures, combustion- -I can’t even splice genes into them anymore. We’re stuck with these rat-creatures.”

“They’re not rats!” cried Rainbow Dash, causing several of the fluffy ponies to run and hide under things. “They’re ponies! They think, feel- -how can you do this to them?”

Beard shrugged. “They’re abominations. Abominations of our own creation, sure. Their only purpose is to make us money.”

Rainbow Dash stared at him for a moment, feeling her anger rising. Before she could reach out and try to strangle him, though, Five spoke.

“Yes,” she said.

“Five, don’t tell me you- -”

“Not that last part. Did not hear. Was thinking. I have decided. Yes. We would like to purchase one.”

“WHAT?”

“Oh, don’t worry!” said Micron. “You won’t regret it!” He picked one of the creatures, this one smiling and plump. Its color was pale yellow, and its hair purple- -and Rainbow Dash was reminded of a tiny fluffy Fluttershy. “How about this one? She is one of our best behaved. She always uses the litterbox, and gives lots of hugs.”

“Big fwuffy be nyu mummah?” it said, its eyes widening with joy. “Fwuffy am so happy!”

“No,” said Five, coldly, and Rainbow Dash watched as the tiny pony’s spirit was crushed.

“We have…we have other colors,” said Micron, himself sounding as sad as his favorite fluffy pony. “We have adults and foals. We…”

“We can even do that amputation, if you want it,” said Beard.

“No thank you, Ivan,” said Five.

Beard’s eyes widened. “How did- -how did you know my name?”

“Wait,” said Rainbow Dash. “You’re name isn’t Beard?”

“Of course not,” said Five. “That is a pseudonym used by about ninety three percent of ‘scientists’ down here. His real name is Ivan Yuloff. And how do I know? I’m a telepath. Which means: get me out of here. I can hear their thoughts…nothing but ‘love’ and ‘huggies’ and ‘bruddah, sissy, mummah’- -believe me, it is maddening.”

“Then- -what do you want?”

“A primary. Sell me one of your primary. Not these things you were trying to breed. A direct clone.”

“Are you kidding me? A primary? No way!”

“Kneck, come on,” said Micron. “We’re in the red as it is. We need the money.”

Beard- -or Ivan, grimaced. “Stupid bat mare…fine. Follow me.”

Rainbow Dash and Five were lead to an offshoot of the main laboratory, one that was filled with equipment that hummed. Rainbow Dash thought she heard the sound of liquid moving around and sloshing. The machines themselves resembled a number of hoof-wide metal tubes attached to various pumps and machines that lined the edge of the room, except where a table had been prepared for whatever unsavory procedure this room was used for.

“Let’s see,” said Beard, walking around the room, checking the index cards taped to each metal tube. “Hmm…oh. This might work.”

He opened a panel at the base of the tube, and pressed some of the controls. The steel coating around the tube retracted downward into its housing, revealing an inner glass tube about as wide as a pony’s hoof and about a foot long.

Rainbow Dash leaned closer as the lights near the tube blinked and illuminated it. She gasped as she realized what was inside. Floating in the yellowish fluid of the glass tube, connected by its stomach to a long, organic lead, was a tiny brown foal.

“There you go,” said Beard. “Ready to be born. We can’t really use it anyway.”

“Why?” asked Rainbow Dash.

“Because it’s brown,” said Beard, as if it were obvious. “If we try to integrate it to a foster mother, well… the result is always the same. They reject it and force it to eat only feces until it dies of malnutrition. They consider the color ugly.”

“That’s terrible,” said Rainbow Dash. “Why would you even tell me that?”

“Because that is what will happen to it if you don’t buy it.”

“Couldn’t you just feed it yourself?”

“No,” said Micron. “Beard always does the same thing. Says it gives the experiment greater ‘scientific power’.”

“So you are saying you are trying to pass off inferior product,” said Five.

“Harsh,” said Beard. “A bit frigid, aren’t you? Probably a lespony. Don’t you want to save its life?”

“For a runt? I do not care about its life. But it is fine. I will take this one.”

“Um…Five, we came here for a soldier. Not a baby.”

“Trust me on this, Dash,” said Five.

“Excellent,” said Beard, pleased with himself. “I assume you will be paying in cash- -”

“I actually don’t have any money.”

Beard gaped, and then his expression slowly turned to rage. “You what?”

Five smiled. “I wondered why Proctor had me bring it. I suppose he was aware this whole time.” She reached into one of her bags. “Idiot machine. I would have just murdered these two…but this is so much better.” She pulled out long, gray object. Rainbow Dash did not recognize it at first- -but then she remembered. It was half of the broken fragment that one of the gohh in the forest had discarded, a piece of its leg. Five looked toward Beard. “Do you know what this is?”

“A piece of trash. Get out of my lab!”

“This,” said Five, raising her voice, “is a fragment of gohh exoarmor.”

Beard’s eyes widened, but he suppressed the change in his appearance. “No- -no it isn’t. There is no way you could possibly something like that.”

“It is. You can examine it if you desire. I already have.” She handed it to him, and he took it, nearly dropping it. Apparently, it was surprisingly heavy- -and he was shaking. “It’s definitely Beyonder,” said Five. “Alive, even. Apart from that, I have found very little.”

“Check it,” said Beard, handing it to Micron. Micron took it and began scanning it. After a moment, he spoke, his mechanical voice wavering. “It…it is. Isotope rates confirm…this is Beyonder.”

“You understand the implications, of course,” said Five. “To me, that is not of much use…but to a pair of genetic engineers, well...imagine what you could make.”

“How did you even recover- -no,” said Beard. “I don’t want to know.”

“Nopony- -not even the government, not even Thebe has this,” said Micron, himself now shaking.

“I said we won’t ask,” said Beard. “You can have the poop. Heck, you can have all of these floofs if you want.”

“No,” said Five, grasping the glass tube with her claw and disconnecting it. “I only require the one. Is this glass disposable?”

“Um, no.”

“Too bad.”

Without warning, Five smashed the glass tube onto the ground. It instantly shattered, spreading glass and fluid over the floor. The foal spilled out, still connected by its umbilical tube to the machines that were keeping it alive. It did not move at first, but then waved its tiny arms. Rainbow Dash watched as it opened its mouth and released a set of chirping sounds, pleading for its mother.

“Why did you do that?” said Rainbow Dash, moving to rescue the tiny creature from the pool of cold fluid and broken glass. It was so tiny- -barely two inches long- -and still fluffless and unable to open her eyes. Rainbow Dash felt an overwhelming surge of sympathy. All she wanted to do was help it- -and yet Five held her back.

“Foals are pointless. I do not need a foal. You may want to stand back for this next part.”

Several blue sparks arced loudly between Five’s horns, growing louder with each jump. The air suddenly seemed heavy, as though it was trying to become water- -and Rainbow Dash did step back.

The sparks grew larger, and louder, and Five held her head high. A burst of magical energy suddenly permeated the room, knocking back Beard and Micron. Rainbow Dash watched as the magic seemed to consume Five, and as her pupils narrowed into tight white triangles. There was another surge, and then Five slowly lowered her head toward the crying foal. An immense electrical spark suddenly burst out of her head, striking the foal. It screamed out in agony.

Both Rainbow Dash and Micron jumped forward to stop her, the magic surrounding Five’s body suddenly expanded into a pair of prominences. One leapt out and struck Rainbow Dash. She felt her body thrown back, but dug her legs into the ground, watching as the magic disputed from her golden feathers. Micron was hit with the other prominence. He, however, could not dissipate the magic and was thrown backward with great force into Beard, knocking them both against the wall.

The foal continued to scream, but then the pitch of the scream changed. Its body began to swell, as if it were about to explode. Instead of bursting open, though, its tissue transformed and grew, extending grotesquely form itself as it grew, its limbs and jaw extending asymmetrically.

Five only stared forward, blankly, watching the effect of her magic. Then she increased her power output, and there was a surge of blue so powerful that Rainbow Dash was forced to look away. When she looked back, the foal was gone.

In its place was standing an extremely fluffy pony. Not in the way that the other clones were fluffy ponies, though- -this one was full sized, standing just slightly shorter than a normal earth pony, his thick brown fluff still steaming and releasing small blue sparks.

He turned toward Rainbow Dash. His eyes, which had formerly been closed, were now fully open. They were a striking, crystalline blue- -but somehow looked empty and dead.

“Wewe am babbeh?” he asked in a somewhat deep voice. “Why babbeh…” he cleared his throat. “And why am I talking like this?”

Rainbow Dash was surprised at the tone of his voice, and the accent. She could not place it entirely, but it somehow sounded oddly impressive, as if he were some kind of professor. It was nothing like the strange voices of the other fluffy ponies.

“Please identify,” he said, looking at them. “Which of you is my Commander?”

“Com…commander?” asked Rainbow Dash, confused. She had no idea what he was talking about- -or where he had come from.

“That would be me,” said Five, her pupils returned to normal but her horns still sparking slightly.

The fluffy pony turned toward Five. “Hello, Commander.”

“You can talk,” said Five, stepping forward. “This is surprising. What is your name, soldier?”

“I am…” he paused, and Rainbow Dash could see that he was confused. “I am…” he looked down at himself. “I am brown.”

“Brown, then,” said Five.

A bit of motion attracted Rainbow Dash’s eyes. Several of the smaller, deformed clones had made their way into the room to see what the commotion was. One of them, a stallion, was approaching Brown with his cheeks puffed out, followed by several others, including a mare that was so fat she could barely walk.

“Dummeh ugwy poopeh mustuh!” it said. “Smawty giv poopeh fwuffy wostest sowwie poopsies!”

It turned around, lifting its tail toward Brown. Brown looked down, disinterested, and then with his hoof quickly turned the tiny stallion around. The stallion released a torrent of liquid feces- -onto the fat mare behind it.

“Nuuuuu!” cried the mare. “Why giv sowwie poopsies to soon mummah?”

“No mean to!” cried the stallion, now crying. “Am bad fwuffy! Huwt tummeh babbehs! Huuuuhuu!”

Brown stepped forward to the group, and they promptly released their own feces- -largely on the fat mare- -and ran away in terror. The only one that could not run was the mare, who was so fat that her legs could barely reach the ground, and were now running in slippery feces. She was crying.

“No huwt soon mummah!” she pleaded.

Brown’s expression did not change. He did not smile or frown. His eyes continued to stare blankly. He lifted one hoof over the mare, and slammed it down.

“Stop,” said Five, softly.

Brown obeyed, his hoof stopping just short of the mare’s body.

“What are you doing?”

“These creatures are an affront to the Exmoori race,” he said, coldly. “They must be terminated to preserve the sanctity of our genetics.”

“Did I order you to kill that pony?”

Brown paused, and for the first time Rainbow Dash saw a glimmer of an expression on his face. “No, Commander. You did not. What are my orders?”

Five pointed at Rainbow Dash. “You see that mare?”

“Yes,” said Brown, planting his foot on the ground near the terrified pregnant fluffy pony. He stared at Rainbow Dash with his piercing blue eyes. “Do you wish this one terminated?”

“No,” said Five. “This pony is named Rainbow Dash. You’re primary function is to protect her. It is what you exist for- -what created you for. Use any means you deem necessary.”

“She is a Pegasus,” noted Brown.

“Is that a problem?”

“No. This order is accepted. Hello, Lady Dash. I am Brown. I am here to protect you.”

“No…friggin…way,” said Beard, extricating himself from beneath Microns’ still twitching unconscious body and staring bug-eyed at Brown. “That’s- -that’s a pure clone!”

“It is,” said Five, picking up the now fully repaired glass tube from next to brown and sliding it back into the machine that held it. “I infused his body with Order, force-growing him to adulthood in three point two seconds. I also reversed entropic chances in his genetic code.”

“You did what we couldn’t,” said Beard, jumping up and cheering. “YES! Finally! This day could not get any better! First, a fragment of Beyonder tech, and now, finally, I’ve made a correct clone! Not these broken little feces-drenched rats, but a real soldier!”

“You created,” said Rainbow Dash. “You created? Five did this!”

“Um, no,” said Beard, drawing a gun from under his lab coat. “I did. Or at least that is what I will tell everypony. Look at this! I can keep the gohh piece, I get a new fluffy to study, and I just caught two wanted criminals. This will put my company back on track! I’ll get employees, money, grants! I’ll get respect! Mares will love me!”

“You won’t get away with this,” said Rainbow Dash.

“I already have,” said Beard, lazily pointing his gun toward Rainbow Dash.

Brown’s eyes suddenly narrowed. He reacted so quickly that even Rainbow Dash could not see any more than a blur. Before Beard could even pull the trigger on his gun, Brown had shattered his arm with a single punch, forcing him to drop the pistol. Then, without hesitation, Brown gripped Beard’s head and twisted- -until Beard was looking at his own plot. Beard’s eyes widened, and he gurgled- -but before he could fall, Brown picked him up effortlessly and slammed him against the rear wall, producing a crack as more of his bones shattered.

Beard slowly slid down the wall, leaving a trail of blood and feces as he went.

“Threat terminated,” said Brown, coldly. “Lady Dash, are you injured?”

“Not…not physically,” said Rainbow Dash.

Brown smiled, almost looking caring. “This is a good thing.”

“Excellent,” said Five, smiling. “You are like the son I will never have. Amazing…how do you know how to fight?”

“I just do, Commander,” said Brown.

“Did you- -did you teach him that?” said Rainbow Dash meekly.

“No,” said Five, smiling. “I think…I think they are born ready to kill.”

“Ohh,” said Micron, standing. “My RAM feels like I partied too hard…” he rubbed his head, and then looked down at Beard’s twisted corpse. “Kneck….?”

“Congradulations,” said Five, scooping up the still crying feces-covered mare that had been unable to run away. She handed it to Micron and put her hoof on his shoulder. “You have been promoted. And just so you know: this is not classifed. Or I let Brown here purify his people’s genetics.” She booped the pregnant mare on the nose. “If you know what I mean.”

“I understa- -eeeee!” he suddenly shuddered, and his head twisted to the side. He seemed to go rigid for a moment, and then looked up at Rainbow Dash. “Are you guys done yet? This is taking forever.”

“Proctor?” said Rainbow Dash.

“No, Dashie,” said Pinkie_Proctor. “Clearly I am Nightmare Moon.” He looked down at the pony in his arms. Proctor_Shy promptly squeed. “Aren’t you just the most adorable thing! I just want to put you in a box and give you the biggest hugs!” He promptly squeezed the mare.

“Biggest poopies!” it cried. As it did, several foals dropped out of it.

“Oop,” said Proctor, catching the foals with one of Micron’s extra arms, but dropping one. “To big of a hug. Sorry, cutie.”

“Is okay,” said the fluffy pony, hugging Proctor back. “Fwuffy am mummah! Micwon-daddeh huggies gif bestes babbehs!”

“Daww,” said Pinke_Proctor. “But, anyway, hurry up you two. Before I have to resect another mugger. That, and I think I saw a goblin walking around out here.”

Micron shivered again, and looked down to see one of the defective clones hugging him, and his hand filled with blood-covered, chirping, multi-colored fluffy foals.

“What just…did somepony just hack me?”

“No,” lied Five, stepping past him. “Brown, Dash. On me. Time to go. I got what I came for. Fun place, this Yuloff. But I really, really need a shower.”

Chapter 36: The Alicorn and the Monster

View Online

Thebe opened her eyes. As always, she saw nothing, save for the inside of her mask. It was all she had ever seen, for almost four centuries. On this particular day, however, she smiled.

It had finally happened. She did not know how she had not seen it sooner, but now she knew. She had seen the pattern, and locked onto her target. She could feel the excitement rushing through her organic parts, those that had been numb for so very long. It was like a powerful thirst, and uncontrollable desire. Her mind had been plagued with visions of that creature, what she called in her mind the Vandrare. She tried to work, but the thoughts of the secrets within its body kept distracting her.

Now she knew where one was.

Thebe shifted through space, teleporting effortlessly. For the first time in so many decades, she left her Pyramid and descended to the land below, materializing in a distant forest. She floated above the ground, engaging a perception spell to determine her location. Thebe confirmed that she had landed in the correct location, ahead of the target.

She began moving. As she did, she was aware that the trees and plants around her shifted, their trunks and leaves bursting open, their cells burning internally from the overload of magic in the air, leaving behind nothing but bleached, dead husks. Thebe was aware of the irony, of course. The suit that she wore had, long ago, back when it really had been a suit and before it had been replaced piece-by-piece with magic, had originally been intended to protect her from the dangers of the outside world. As her power had increased, though, such a thing nolonger became necessary- -now, although she did not intend it to, it actually protected the outside world from her.

Not completely, though, as the trees and occasional animal could attest to. No doubt, unicorns across Equestria could feel the disturbance caused by Thebe’s sudden emergence. All that, and she had not even lit her horns.

She positioned herself. According to what she had found, the creatures- -there were now several, having arisen from any city that had become infected- -moved rather simply. Almost invariably, they moved in straight lines. Nothing stood in their way, especially cities. Very few survived an encounter with a Vandrare. So far, only changelings had- -and they, disturbingly, had changed. Thebe was aware of the alteration- -changelings, by their nature, copied the appearance of what they perceived to be the most powerful creature on the planet. They normally resembled insectoid alicorns- -but now all native changelings had shifted, becoming tall and bipedal. That was technically an insult to Thebe, but she did not care. It had been centuries since she had felt any real emotions, or cared especially much about the world below.

Now, if she was correct, she was directly in the path of one of them.

There was no time to waste. Thebe was immortal, but in this instance, she had chosen to be impatient. She absentmindedly focused her mind on the forest around her, and a twenty-mile radius around her was instantly incinerated.

Then she saw it. It had not even been distant. The fire had not damaged it remotely, or even slowed it. It simply continued walking, its glowing white eyes staring forward blankly. It was slightly larger than Thebe had expected, and clearly not the one from the Grand Magus’ vision. The armor was different, and the shoulders marked with the number “0”.

Thebe approached it, hovering high over the ground, her legs tucked under her and her robe trailing behind her. The urge was incredibly strong, and she could not stop smiling. At first, she had not believed- -but now she saw it herself, or came as close to “seeing” as she could. This creature, this power- -a mindless monstrosity that could level a city with a thought. Thebe was incapable of love by definition, but the powerful desire that she felt for this creature, this Vandrare, was what she imagined that it must be like.

“Hello,” she said, not with her own mouth, which she doubted even still operated, but with her magic.

The Vandrare took a few more steps, until it was reasonably close to Thebe, and then stopped. Thebe admired it for a moment- -the tall, bipedal structure, and the long, clawed arms. She sensed that, like her, it was probably blind. A number of bizarrely constructed scanning spells were surrounding it. Their structure alone indicated a culture and design that was distinctly abstracted from anything remotely pony.

It did not speak. Thebe doubted it even could. From what she had seen of them, she did not expect them to be intelligent, not even on the level of a mortal pony. They probably only had some semblance of sentience.

“Identify yourself. What exactly are you?”

The Vandrare did not respond, aside from producing a minor change in AM radio transmission surrounding itself. It just kept staring blankly, as if it did not understand.

“You understand,” said Thebe. “At least, perhaps. Or perhaps you do not.” She smiled. “But you will…” Thebe slowly began to circle the creature, examining it. It did not turn its face to follow her, but she could feel it watching through its spell. With the way the spell seemed to be constructed, it appeared that this particular organism could never stop seeing. The spell was intended to operate continually without interruption. Exactly how much it could see, though, was unclear.

“Let me explain what do know,” said Thebe. “Firstly, your standing-state shielding seals are woefully inadequate- -or brilliantly compact. One of the two. Second. You’re kind reproduces through a vector, a unique type of spell that interconverts between a spell and a parasite. I doubt that whatever you are had the organs necessary to reproduce otherwise.” She finished orbiting, and stared into its eyes. Thebe did not know what purpose those eyes served- -they were certainly not for sight. There was a good chance that they, like many of the seemingly elements of its armor, was vestigial. “You hide under that suit because your organic body is weak,” said Thebe. “In a sense. But you…you are strong.” She leaned in closer, allowing her mask to nearly touch the Vandrare’s. “But only because I allow you to be. You exist because I have not yet destroyed you. I allow you to destroy my cities because I choose so. This planet- -and everything on it, including you and every living pony- -belongs to me. This is my right as a god.”

She pulled back from it, wondering why she was even bothering to speak to it. Based on its reactions, it seemed to be listening- -but logically, Thebe knew that it likely could not. “But you interest me,” said Thebe, smiling beneath her mask. “So little has interested me in so long. As such, I give you a choice: join me. Be my pet. Let me dissect you. Let me understand. Give me your power, and live forever as Thebe.”

For the first time, the Vandrare moved. Its head tilted, just slightly. It paused for just a moment, as if considering the offer- -or trying to speak, or even just to understand what had been said.

Then, without a single motion, a surge of magic poured outward toward Thebe. Thebe was mildly surprised, not that the Vandrare had attacked but at how the spell moved chaotically, not traveling in a straight line but moving randomly through space, attacking her from the side.

The force within would have been enough to destroy most of a small city, but Thebe ignited her horns in defense; the corona alone was enough to shatter the offensive spell.

“That was not a choice,” she said, firing a pure beam of blood-colored magic at the Vandrare.

Its spells engaged, and just as Thebe had suspected, it was protected. The shield spells condensed and shifted, engaging in a way that was instinctive and mechanical, but somehow also oddly creative. It deflected Thebe’s primary attack.

“Too late,” she said.

The second part of the spell engaged, one cast with Thebe’s frontmost horn. She felt it connect. It was a necromancic spell of her own design. Instead of being intended to resurrect life, though, this one had been intended to destroy it- -and she felt the creature’s immortal soul shatter under her grasp.

The Vandrare’s magic immediately failed, and it fell backward, dead. Something was wrong, though. Thebe had reaped its soul. There was no way to survive- -and yet she still felt its pulse, continuing on within its chest.

The Vandrare stopped just short of impacting the ground, it’s back parallel to the ground but its feet still firmly planted in the soil. It stayed there for a moment, as if suspended by some unseen force. Thebe watched, and was astounded at what she was seeing. Her magic was indicating that the creature, devoid of a soul, was constructing a new one.

Then it lurched forward, standing once again, the new artificial soul engaged and in place.

“I knew it,” said Thebe. She actually laughed, but only for a moment- -the sound of her throat rasping out a long hiss was somewhat disturbing to her. “I knew it!”

She focused her power on the Vandrare and released another barrage of spells. This time, it did not even bother to engage its shield- -it simply walked forward into the spells. They had virtually no effect against its armor.

A surge of aberrant magic came from its body. Thebe suddenly felt something constricting against her body. She looked down to see something resembling a snake wrapped around her legs, its body consisting of a number of bony segments, leading toward a toothy, eyeless head that dug its teeth into her armor. Thebe counted the heads, and found that there were actually several.

“I hate snakes,” she said, annoyed. Her own shielding engaged, and the Chaos-worm vaporized- -and simultaneously, a fist appeared at her chest.

Thebe teleported, her auxiliary processing spells momentarily taking control of her body, slowing the world around her as her secondary and tertiary minds began to function. She appeared behind the Vandrare, a volley prepared for its spine- -only to find that it was still facing her. It had predicted her teleport, and followed it.

The turn of events was unexpected, but not severe. Instead of firing her attack, Thebe simply switched the nature of the spell, converting it from an offensive blast to a defensive singularity. The Vandrare’s punch shattered the defensive spell easily, but the resulting discharge explosion provided enough cover for Thebe to move back to a range position.

Above all things, Thebe found that she was thrilled. It had been so long since she had been involved in a proper wizard battle, not since her youth, long before she had been sealed inside her containment suit. Ever since, none had been able to challenge her; four hundred years of continuous research had expanded her magical potential to the point where even the most brilliant pony mages would be atomized before she could even fully warm up a proper attack spell. This creature, however, was actually able to defend itself.

“A change in tactics, then,” said Thebe, redirecting her magical energy behind her. Three triangular portals opened up. Her robes separated and reached in, withdrawing a hoof-held mass driver and several violet, crystalline spikes. Thebe took the weapon in her hooves and loaded it. With expert aim, she directed it at the Vandrare and fired.

A shield appeared before the creature, and Thebe for a moment knew what to expect. Cerorite was a unique substance, the secret of the manufacture of which she had only recently unearthed. It was resistant to all forms of magic; a cerrorite bullet was unblock able and unstoppable.

Yet, when they contacted the white partial bubble around the Vandrare, they stopped in midair. Thebe stared for a moment, wondering what had gone wrong- -and if her formulation had been in error. She quickly realized, however, that she was reading no magic whatsoever from the Vandrare. It was as though all spells within it had instantly failed. The shield itself was purely technological, a kind of ultra-durable hard-light construct.

The Vandrare seemed to contemplate the deep violet spikes for a moment. Then, almost too fast to be seen, the white construct collapsed around them, separating into mechanical pieces that fused into a weapon not unlike Thebe’s- -and it fired them back at her.

A cerorite bullet could, of course, kill an alicorn- -it was one of the only things that could. Thebe was prepared for such an event, however. She recalled a spell she had learned long ago, and shifted through time. Not backward, as Starswirl the Bearded had originally intended the spell to operate by- -but forward. She flashed a fraction of a second into the future, allowing the cerorite to pass through her location harmlessly and fly into the distance.

“Intriguing,” said Thebe, throwing down her gun. “So you are some kind of hybrid- -a mixture of technology and magic. Not unlike myself…”

The Vandrare looked up at her, and Thebe braced for another attack. Instead, however, the Vandrare looked over its shoulder, toward the direction that it had been marching toward- -and simply turned.
‘ Thebe suddenly felt herself surge with homicidal rage. It had stopped half way through the battle- -and not even to run. It was intending to simply walk away, as if the battle were nothing to it. This insult was only marginal, but for a moment Thebe lost control.

“DO NOT WALK AWAY FROM ME!” she said, igniting her horns and unleashing a blast at close to full power output. Even as it was firing, she immediately regretted it- -such an output had an energy output rated in metric gigatons; on impact, there would be nothing left to of the Vandrare to study. That, and Thebe had probably just rendered every unicorn within a four thousand mile radius unconscious.

The Vandrare turned, and as it did, it raised one of its hands in a futile defensive gesture.

Then, suddenly, Thebe cried out in pain. It was so sharp and potent, more powerful than anything she had ever felt in so long. The Vandrare had not only blocked the spell, and done so without any sign of anything remotely reminiscent of a shield spell- -but caused the spell to backfeed.

The spell, having originated from Thebe, by its very definition penetrated her shields. There was no way that she could defend against her own attack; the most she could do was direct the force of the spell toward her artificial horns. They instantly shattered with agonizing pain, leaving to holes directly into her brain- -but her organic horn was preserved, if barely.

She dropped to her knees. Her magic had been severely scrambled, and the blast alone itself had been draining. The pain of losing two of her horns was incredibly, and for once she understood how all the unicorns she had de-horned in her life had felt. She could, of course, replace them, but having them destroyed was still humbling. If anything, it indicated that Thebe could defeat Thebe.

Slowly, she looked up to see if anything was left of her opponent. At first, she was overjoyed to see that it was still standing. It had been badly wounded, of course; its left arm had been completely annihilated, as had its head. Its torso had been torn open, and deep-red blood was pouring from its opened chest.

Then Thebe looked closer. As she did, her eyes widened. “No,” she whispered, both with her real voice and through her mental one. “That isn’t…that isn’t…”

The Vandrare’s chest had been torn apart, revealing its contents. Amongst the singed, red tissue and shattered ribs were a number of black-colored machines linking to its mostly artificial organs. Within that chest, Thebe could see its red-purple heart, still beating- -but that was not her concern. Her fear- -and it was fear- -came from the second heart.

In the center of its chest, directly next to its organic heart, was a second one- -one made of pure blue-white crystal. The crystal that surrounded and linked to that heart permeated the creature’s flesh, intermixing with blood and muscle and machinery. Thebe had only seen a heart like that once, but she knew well what it was. This creature’s chest contained a living Heart of Order.

The creature took a step forward. It was no longer walking in the direction it had before, but rather toward Thebe, its one remaining arm swinging at its side as though nothing were wrong. As Thebe watched, its body sparked with white Order, its flesh pouring out of its wounded body and intermixing with crystal that extended from within. Flesh and steel materialized around it, reassembling themselves into a new arm and a new head, but leaving the chest open.

Thebe realized that she had made a mistake. She had vastly underestimated this creature. In her now ever-so-clear arrogance, she had assumed that it was some kind of mutated sorcerer, one intelligent enough to wield not only its own magic but Chaos and Order as well. The Order itself was unusual, but Thebe had essentially dismissed it as a parlor trick. She had assumed that it used Order in the same way that Choggoths or the Anhelii did, through the use of microscopic implanted Order crystals. This creature, however, did not contain Order. It was Order.

The magical potential of the creature suddenly began to increase exponentially, its body erupting in a plume of caustic white Order. In less than a second, it exceeded Thebe’s unassisted magical output by a factor of ten- -but it did not attack. Instead, as the meter-wide sparks of Order erupted form its being, it directed the energy toward itself, feeding on the energy from its Heart, converting the force into its own magic.

The Vandrare stared into Thebe, and then spread its arms. The spell activated.

Thebe dropped onto the floor of the Pyramid. The pain was exquisite; even moving slightly was agonizing. She could do little except pant with numerous, shallow breaths and use her one functional horn to keep her body alive.

Her greatest regret was that she had not seen the spell reach its zenith, to witness the concentrated destruction that the Vandrare had chosen to produce, but she knew that in her present condition, it likely would have been lethal. Teleporting was her only option, even though it had been costly. The Vandrare was, in some senses, more powerful than Thebe, but not nearly as smart. It had placed down spells to prevent her from leaving, but she had outwitted them just in time.

Moving through the sealing spells and the Order saturated atmosphere, however, had taken its toll on her body. Three of her legs had been removed, as well as most of her internal organs. She was not entirely sure where they had gone, but they had certainly left her, and probably been vaporized by the Order storm.

That, itself, was not a problem. When Thebe had caught her breath, she rose, lifted by her magic. The suit around her shifted, extending into the space where her legs had once been, preparing for their eventual regeneration. Thebe engaged a healing spell and felt the damaged flesh within her begin to repair. Her alicorn body would be restored in less than an hour. During that time, she had things to do.

The first was to remove the pair of inert, fragmented horns from her brain and replace them with a new set. The self-inflicted neurosurgery required was intensive, but not beyond Thebe’s ability by any means. After momentary consideration, she did not even bother to allow herself recovery time.

Much to her dismay, there was a pony she needed to find- -immediately.

The spell completed, and Epicenter momentarily marveled at the destruction she had created. Then she dropped to the ground. She analyzed what had just happened. To her mild annoyance, her power dissipation was lower than anticipated. Her body, it seemed, was still largely incomplete. Either that, or there had been some genetic drift during her predecessor’s extended stasis. She began the process of repairing it.

She did not entirely know what the creature that had attacked her was. The part of her mind that had once been a pony said the world “alicorn”, but the true part of her mind called it a “pony-Choggoth”. That term was not correct, of course- -it was not at all a Choggoth, but seemed to have been heavily mutated by exposure to Order. Most disconcertingly, living Order. Epicenter wondered if there was somehow a fragment of a Lord of Order remaining on this world, but dismissed that as irrelevant.

Epicenter looked down at her new arm, and flexed it. It was identical to the old one. At the same time, she examined her newly-built soul. It seemed to be functioning within normal parameters. Not that it was especially important- -a soul was a redundant and useless element of her biological form that had been co-opted into a system for increasing reaction time between her internal crystalline and synthetic matrices.

The entire situation was mildly amusing. It also had apparently given her a potential advantage: her surge of magic had caused several others to finish their healing process and enter the world fully aware. She could hear them in the distance, waking up to this world.

Not that any of it truly mattered, of course. No known force would be able to stop her people, to prevent them from reaching their goal. Epicenter turned around, and once again began walking.

Chapter 37: The Fluffy Shadow

View Online

Rainbow Dash shifted her saddlebags. They were not heavy, but they were awkward and fit poorly around her wings. She was still able to fly if she wanted to- -and, of course, she could always ditch the extra weight- -but she had no need to. As such, she instead walked along the dirty pavement of the Lower Level streets.

Five had said to avoid the Lower Levels. Ironically, though, that was now the only place they were safe. Nopony looked in the Lower Levels- -and with the look of them, Rainbow Dash doubted that anypony ever could.

The streets were busy, even crowded, but not like the ones above. In the upper levels, ponies always seemed to be going places, trudging or rushing to and from unknown places that were surely important in their individual lives. In the Lower Levels, however, that did not seem to be the case. There was instead an air of a bustling market- -but one that was somehow oddly ominous and threatening. Numerous street venders were pushing dirty carts filled with various items ranging from strange meat on sticks to machine parts to spices- -and some ponies, in the darker alleys, were selling things from their coats without a cart.

Lining each side of the street were run-down shops of all kinds. Many had bars on the windows, and almost all of them had gaudy neon signs that provided the mostly red hue that lit the street. Ponies meandered between the stores beside owls, donkeys, rams, and even an occasional diamond dog- -and one extremely large, derp-eyed bouncer whose large top hat Rainbow Dash was pretty sure disguised a pair of horns.

Most of the ponies filling the street were dirty, and many were drunk. In this particular region, there were also a large number of mares waiting outside some of the red-lit buildings, and many of them walking very close to the stallions accompanying them. They were almost invariably heavily made-up, and dressed highly suggestively, with stockings and saddles or sheer dresses that would have made even Rarity blush.

A group of them spied Rainbow Dash and waved, becoming her toward their club. Rainbow Dash immediately looked away, feeling her face and ears growing hot. She reassured herself that she was not a lespony- -even though, a tiny voice in her head told her, the only pony she had ever gone to bed with was a mare- -but those ponies were attractive. The thought of what their career was, though, made Rainbow Dash’s heard beat quickly, pounding in her chest like she had just finished a race. Worse, though, was the thought that such a career had existed in her own time, that it was not a factor of this sunless and dirty segment of this world. She wondered if any ponies in Ponyville had done that.

For a moment, she paused. Her anxiety was growing. The light and sound and smell of strange food and chemicals was causing her to start to panic, and she looked instinctively toward the sky. She was fortunate- -this particular section had a sky, or something marginally similar to one. Above them was a black sky where the buildings seemed to rise for eternity, narrowing as they got closer, their windows linked by clotheslines and illegal power cables. Slow-moving garbage transports were seen directly above, dripping fluid on unfortunate ponies below, and higher up fast-moving airships whizzed by.

A pony bumped into Rainbow Dash.

“Hey!” she cried. “Watch…” She trailed off when she found herself looking into the face of a heavyset cyborg, his lower jaw completely replaced with a number of tubes shoved down his throat. He gurgled angrily and made a rude gesture with his forelegs before pushing past Rainbow Dash toward a taco stand- -or at least something labeled as “ ‘taco’ stand”.

As Rainbow Dash contemplated purchasing one of these so-called tacos, she suddenly felt a shove from her side. She turned just in time to see a young stallion reaching into her saddlebags, taking a plastic-wrapped bag of green-colored wafers that she had just purchased.

“Hey!” she cried, turning and spreading her wings, ready to give chase as he ran away, smiling.

As he looked back, a shadow in front of him moved. It materialized into something hairy, and Brown raised his hoof, clotheslining the much larger stallion in the throat. The stallion buckled, collapsing into the street, his body folding as he reached for his neck and gasped for air. Brown bent down and picked up the bag of wafers, being careful not to unload the items perched on his back.

“Here,” he said, passing the bag back to Rainbow Dash.

Rainbow Dash snatched it away from him with her robotic arm, glaring at him. “Where did you come from?”

Brown looked at her, his blue eyes wide. “I believe you were there for that part.”

“That’s not what I mean.”

Brown fell into step with Rainbow Dash. He was several inches shorter than she was, but with all his hair appeared substantially wider. Since his “birth”, his mane and tail had started to darken and his fluff to flatten slightly, making him look slightly more like a pony and less like a brown cotton ball.

Rainbow Dash looked at the objects he was carrying on his back. One was a fifty pound bag of something called bentonite, which he seemed to have no trouble moving at all; the other was a large plastic tray.

“Why do you have a box?” said Rainbow Dash, trying to ignore the injured pony they were leaving behind.

“Because the toilet accommodations of you primitives are barbaric and unsavory,” he said, sounding somewhat annoyed.

“Wait…you’re going to go…in the box? Like a cat?”

Brown sighed. “Yes. Like a cat. Is that so wrong?”

“Um…it’s a little weird.” Then Rainbow Dash realized that she was talking to a clone of an extinct race of pony that was less than ten hours old and had already murdered at least one pony. He might as well use a litter box; the strangeness it added to the situation was barely marginal.

They continued in silence for a while. Although Brown was surprisingly articulate for his age, he was not especially talkative. Having him near her, though, made Rainbow Dash irrationally angry. She did not like him especially much, and loathed having somepony around to “protect” her.

Then they passed a group of stallions, and they started jeering.

“Ooooohh!” one of them cried, looking up from what he was doing and pointing. “Browny’s gonna bet some!”

“Hairy Larry gettin Dashie Tushie!”

“Hey furry! Yeah, you! Give that sexy rainbow mane a good tug for me when you’re on her back!”

“How much she cost yah, brownie?”

They continued to call and whistle after them, and Rainbow Dash had to resist an extremely strong urge to chase each and every one of them down and pound them into an apology. Since having been sent to the shady, semi-underground wafer grocer five blocks away from Pretty Lady’s, she had been propositioned at least three times and whistled at repeatedly. Her rump had even been grabbed at one point, and she would have punched the guy into the next level if he had not been an owl in thick glasses.

Brown, however, seemed completely nonplussed. His expression did not change, nor did he seem to be stressed in any way by their comments.

“Are you deaf?” demanded Rainbow Dash.

“No. My hearing is actually somewhat better than yours.”

“And it doesn’t even bother you? Not even a little?”

“No.”

Rainbow Dash took a step back from him. “You- -you actually want to do that kind of thing to me, don’t you?”

Brown turned his eyes to her. “Aside from the fact that you are a narrow-built Pegasus and that I do not find you attractive, I would consider that a dereliction of my duty.”

“Narrow built?! Who are you calling ‘narrow built’?”

“You, Lady Dash. I assumed that was obvious from my syntax.”

“Don’t call me ‘Lady’. Rainbow Dash is fine. Or Rainbow, even. But ‘Lady’ just sounds…girly.”

“I shall therefore use the name ‘Rainbow Dash’.”

“But they don’t bother?” Rainbow Dash gestured toward the world around her. “None of this bothers you?”

“I will admit that it all new to me,” said Brown, “but it is just the world to me. I find no part of it especially interesting, or especially unpleasant.”

“Wait a second,” said Rainbow Dash, trying to fathom what was going on. “You mean…so you don’t know anything about this world? I mean, at all?”

“The Commander has implanted some basic context into my memory to facilitate my function. But otherwise, no. I was just born a few hours ago.”

“And that…that doesn’t bother you?”

“No.”

“And you’re just…what? Going to follow me?”

“That is my primary mission, my order, and the reason for which I was created. I exist to protect you, and to serve the will of the Commander.”

“I don’t need protecting!” snapped Rainbow Dash.

“According to the Commander, you are currently being pursued by assassins.”

“Yeah. I am. And if they come at me again, I’ll take them out myself.”

“Doubtful. You are not a soldier.”

Rainbow Dash stopped walking and turned toward Brown. “No. You are not a soldier. I was a Wonderbolt. Do you know what that is?”

“No.”

“I was one of Celestia’s elite flyers. I am the only one here with actual military training.”

“You…you were a soldier?”

“Yeah. I was. So you don’t get to tell me what to do. I’m not a weak and helpless filly- -hay, when I was a filly, I still could have beat those nubs! I don’t need the help of some fluffy pony!”

She spread her wings, and relished how Brown’s eyes were momentarily drawn to them. Although his expression did not change much, she knew what he was thinking- -even if he did have wings, there was no way he would be able to follow her in the sky.

“Please don’t fly, Rainbow Dash.”

“Do you even realize what you just said?”

“If you fly, it makes my job harder. I did not mean for my presence to imply weakness on your part- -I am only here to help you. But if you fly, I can’t do that. Please, do not force me to break your wings.”

Rainbow Dash retracted her wings, and stared coldly into Brown’s eyes. She could not believe what he had just said.

“What did you just say to me?” she whispered.

“I said, ‘If you fly, it makes my job- -’”

“I heard that part. Did you just threaten to hurt my wings?”

“The Commander said that I can use any means necessary. I really would rather not, of course, but- -”

“No,” said Rainbow Dash, stepping forward. She pressed into his shoulder with her robotic arm. He was surprisingly sturdy for his small size; it was like trying to push over Applejack. “You won’t. Because if you even think about touching my wings, I will hurt you. And not the kind of hurt that gets fixed if you know what I mean.”

“You mean forever-sleep.”

“Yeah,” said Rainbow Dash, horrified that she had just threatened to kill a pony but refusing to step back. “You do not say something like that. Not to anypony, and especially not to me. You got that?”

“I highly doubt that a wing-bearing pony such as yourself could kill me,” said Brown, “but seeing as we will be working together, I want our relationship to be at least neutral. I see that suggesting a threat to your wings has been taken as an offense, and that I may have overstepped a boundary. I therefore apologize.”

Rainbow Dash groaned. In her own way, she had actually wanted to fight. Five trusted this strange, fluffy pony as though he actually was a soldier, and had the audacity to assign this clone as “protection”. It was as though Brown was a challenge to her, and she wanted to prove that she could take him. Instead, he had simply apologized. “Come on,” she cried. “You are- -I don’t even think you realize how infuriating you are!”

She stomped off, pushing several ponies out of her way. Brown watched her go, and then followed her like a shadow.

Pretty Lady’s was busier than it had been before. Even though it was a Tuesday night, when Rainbow Dash walked in she saw that a number of ponies inside. A great number of them were in various stages of drunkenness, and some had already slumped over tables, their bottles still in their hooves. Many others were attended by Pretty Lady’s employees- -some of which were serving food and drinks to the shabby tables, but most of whom were well-dressed mares sitting close to their clients, and sometimes leading them off to the back rooms. Some of them Rainbow Dash distantly recognized as the ones that had been with Gell earlier, both as the attending mares and, more often, as the customers being attended.

“Where am I?” said Brown, sounding mildly disgusted as he stared up at a makeshift stage on which a sweater and sock clad mare was gyrating around a metal pole. Rainbow Dash did not even dignify him with a response.

Rainbow Dash crossed to the left side and unhooked her saddlebags with her mouth. She set them down and took a seat on one of the barstools. Pretty Lady, who was standing behind it, crossed over to her and leaned on the bar. She was larger than most mares, and abnormally muscular beneath her dress, which was a dull neutral color that made her almost painful to view pink coat stand out even more than it already did.

Rainbow Dash had initially been skeptical of Pretty Lady, as she was of most ponies in the future, but she had actually come to like the mare. She was tough and strong, two qualities that Rainbow Dash admired greatly, but not the point of being especially mean. In other words, the opposite of Five.

“You get the supplies?” she asked.

“Yeah,” said Rainbow Dash, taking out a bag with her teeth and passing it to Pretty Lady. It contained mostly vegetables and various fruits, as well as a large can of industrial-strength beer nuts. Rainbow Dash set the bag on the bar.

“Gracias,” said Pretty Lady, passing the bag to a stallion in a greasy, soot-stained white apron. “Get to work,” she told the stallion. “And make it extra salty- -remember, the more thirsty they are, the more drinks they buy.”

The stallion nodded, and then turned to Rainbow Dash and gave a small awkward bow.

“You got the bat’s stuff too?”

“Yeah,” said Rainbow Dash.

“Did you remember the green wafers?”

“Of course. You mentioned them like seventeen times. What’s so important about the green ones?”

“They’re made of ponies,” whispered the grinning unicorn bartender beside Lady.

“You,” said Pretty Lady. “Less talking more maky pony drunky!”

“Well, it’s a slow night,” said the bartender, setting down the glass he had been polishing. “They’re pretty well set. I’m going for a smoke.”

He stepped past Lady.

“Fine,” said Pretty Lady. “But if you come back hyped-up on E-metal again, I will shove it so far in your plot that you can’t tell your rising action from your climax for a week!”

The unicorn bartender waved and stepped into the kitchen.

“What is E-metal?” asked Rainbow Dash.

Pretty Lady pointed. Rainbow Dash looked behind her, to where several unicorns were sitting around a circular table. In the center was a golden setting, like the setting from some kind of giant ring, with a tiny shard of black and red metal in the center. They would each occasionally reach out and touch it, only to shudder and collapse, babbling incoherently to each other.

“Unicorn drug,” said Pretty Lady. “Most of it down here is road-apple quality, though. Which is better. The stuff those dome-class get can…well, it’ll mess you up.”

“I had a friend who was on that,” said Rainbow Dash, recalling what she had seen about Rarity in the Equestria History Museum.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” said Pretty Lady.

“No. She got better.”

“Really?” said Pretty Lady, raising one eyebrow. “Well. That’s not common. Usually it kills them. She must have been a strong mare. Or had somepony really important to her to get her through it.”

“She did,” said Rainbow Dash, feeling both happy and sad at the same time.

“Of course,” said Pretty Lady, reaching under the bar and removing a bottle of bluish, vaguely luminescent fluid, “E-metal doesn’t do a thing to earthies like me or wingbacks like you.” She set a pair of glasses on the counter. “We’ve got to do it the old fashioned way.”

She poured out the alchohol, and passed one of the glasses to Rainbow Dash.

“Thanks,” said Rainbow Dash. “Um…how exactly to I pay for this?”

Pretty Lady held up her hoof. “Nah. Bluntforce speaks highly of you. And from what you’ve told me, you need it pretty bad.”

Rainbow Dash took a large sip from the fluid, and found, much to her surprise, that it was some kind of cider. She took another swig.

“Look at you go,” said Pretty Lady, taking a sip from her own glass. “We’ll make an alcoholic out of you yet.” Her gaze turned to the edge of the bar, into a the shadows where Brown was standing, staring off into space at nothing in particular. “Hey you,” she said, causing Brown’s eyes to suddenly shift toward her. “You Rainbow’s coltfriend or something?”

“No,” said Rainbow Dash. “Eew. No. He’s the ‘security’ that Five got for me.”

“A bit hairy, isn’t he? What is your name, fluffy?”

“I am Brown.”

“I can see that. But what is your name?”

“His name is Brown,” said Rainbow Dash, taking another sip of her glowing cider.

“No fooling. Rainbow and Brown. Well, I’ve heard weirder. Hey Brown, come over here and have a seat. You’re scaring the customers.”

“Really?” said Brown, actually looking somewhat surprised.

“Yeah.” Pretty Lady, much to Rainbow Dash’s chagrin, pointed toward the seat next to her. Brown hesitated for a moment, and then clumsily climbed onto the barstool.

“By Celestia that’s a lot of hair,” said Pretty Lady. “You want something to drink, hairy?”

“Hab miwkie?” said Brown. Both Rainbow Dash and Pretty Lady stared at him in silence for a moment, and Brown cleared his throat. “My apologies. To rephrase: do you have milk?”

“No. Nopony goes to a bar and orders milk.”

“Oh,” said Brown, looking disappointed.

“Why are you so hairy?” said Pretty Lady, leaning on the bar. “I mean, that fluff…”

“I am Exmoori,” said Brown. “We’re all like this.”

“Well,” said Pretty Lady. “You’re about fifty years too late. Back then, hair on a stallion was just about the sexiest thing possible. Everypony had a beard, wore v-neck shirts, that sort of stuff. Celestia, I was just a little colt back then. How time flies.”

“V-neck?” said Brown, looking mildly confused.

“Wait a second…colt?” said Rainbow Dash.

“Yeah. I was a darn cute one, too. Probably have pictures somewhere.” She smiled. “I was even a cutie mark crusader, back in the day, down at the chapter over on Lyra Street. You know, before it was turned into a liquor store.”

“I- -I didn’t know you were a stallion,” said Rainbow Dash, confused and feeling incredibly awkward.

“I’m not,” said Pretty Lady, not amused. “Not anymore, anyway.”

“What- -how did that even happen?”

“Bluntforce Gelding happened. Those teeth she has? Yeah. They’re sharp. Very sharp.”

“She…she…”

“Bit off my penis and nards, yes. Looked me in the eyes and swallowed them. There wasn’t enough left for the doctors to give me a new one, not with how much money I had back then- -but they still managed to turn what was left inside-out. They couldn’t make me a stallion, but they could make me a mare.” She looked into her glass. “It’s funny. My last thought as a stallion was ‘oh, I’m about to get blown’. Yeah right.”

Brown seemed disturbed by this, and was holding his hoof near his crotch, as if trying to protect his own “speciw wumps”.

“I’m…I’m sorry,” said Rainbow Dash.

“Sorry?” This time, Pretty Lady actually laughed. “Sorry is the last thing you need to be! See, back then, I wasn’t exactly what you’d call a ‘model citizen’. Ran with a bad crowd. Angry all the time. They’d make fun of my color, or my cutie mark- - ” she lifted the slit in her dress, revealing that her mark was of a bottle of alcohol, labeled “XXX”, with a trio of daisies protruding from the top “- -and I’d beat them to a pulp. Then I met Bluntforce. And you know, I think maybe somehow she could smell it.”

“Smell what?”

“The reason I was so angry. I didn’t even realize it until after the surgery. I never fit into my body. I was born a mare. I think she might have known. I hope she knew. I wasn’t comfortable with myself, or with my life- -but after, I was. For once I could hold my head up proudly. I got this place, built a business. Bluntforce and I have been friends now for almost forty years.”

“So that means…” Rainbow Dash tried to do the math in her head. “You’re almost as old as Five.”

“Yeah. I hate to admit it, of course. The fact that she and Bluntforce don’t age, but I do. To be honest, its torment for Bluntforce, but she doesn’t ever show it- -but the bat doesn’t care. She never did. She freaks me the hay out. My advice: you can trust Bluntforce, if she likes you- -but never trust the bat. She will hurt you.”

“Kind of hard in my circumstance,” admitted Rainbow Dash.

“Who is Bluntforce?” asked Brown, genuinely confused.

Rainbow Dash dropped her head against the bar. Pretty Lady may have had some kind of moral in her story, but all of it had gone over Brown’s head. Rainbow Dash recalled that he had never met Gell. Gell had returned to the Pocket and was sleeping. Five, likewise, had gone out to gather supplies- -something that Rainbow Dash imagined involved theft or extortion. Proctor, meanwhile- -at least according to a rapidfire and nonsensical story that he had told them- -had somehow acquired a large quantity of mints from a passerby and- -through unknown means- -invested them in spiced figs. Through several further and equally strange steps, he had acquired a warehouse full of tungsten, which he was now in the process of liquidating. At least, that was what Rainbow Dash had understood.

“You’ll find out soon enough,” said Pretty Lady. She looked around at her bar, which was now mostly quiet, aside from the sound of a few conversations between the ponies or the giggling of the mares. Most of them seemed interested in drinking, though. Lady sighed. “Well…what do I expect. Taco Tuesday is stealing all the business again.” Her eyes lit up. “Hey, Rainbow. If you don’t want to get backstabbed, you could work here.”

“What?!” cried Rainbow Dash, nearly spilling the dregs of her drink. “No- -I- -that’s not what I- -I don’t want to- -”

“Relax,” said Pretty Lady. “Chill. I’m not saying that you should start out as one of the main girls. Besides, stallions don’t usually pay well for cyborgs. Some mares do, but not usually the kind that come here. Buy from what Buntforce tells me, you’re flighted.”

“Yeah. I can fly,” said Rainbow Dash, with equal parts pride in herself and shame in her species.

“A Pegasus who can fly. I always wondered why they can’t, what with the wings. But a Pegasus that can fly as a dancer- -you could pack the house. Easily.”

“Ha,” said Rainbow Dash, still blushing but feeling slightly flattered. “I’ll have to drink a lot more before you can get me on that stage.”

“Well, then,” she said, refilling Rainbow Dash’s glass. “Let’s see if we can’t get you on the pole.”

“You’re on,” said Rainbow Dash, drowning half the glass.

“Brown boy,” said Pretty Lady. “You sure you don’t want any? Food or something, even? Kitchens not at all busy right now.”

“Food?” said Brown. He seemed to consider for a moment. “I…I am hungry, but, I…”

“You what?”

“I…I don’t know how to eat.”

“You don’t know how to eat?” said Pretty Lady. Her eyes narrowed. “Brown. How old are you?”

“About seven hours,” he said.

“Oh. Okay.”

“That doesn’t bother you?” asked Rainbow Dash.

“I’ve known Five my whole life- -nothing she does surprises me anymore. The bigger question is,” she pointed at Brown. “Does he have a cutie mark under there?”

Brown looked at his fluffy flank. “You know…I actually don’t know,” he said.

“Hold on a second. I’ll see if we have leftovers.”

Pretty Lady walked through the door to the kitchen. Rainbow Dash turned to Brown.

“So you can kill a pony but can’t eat?” she said.

“I was just born,” said Brown. “I can eat milk. Solid food is…confusing.”

Pretty Lady returned quickly, expertly holding to plates. She dropped them on the bar in front of Rainbow Dash and Brown. Each one contained a mass of steaming noodles covered in sauce and bits of green material.

“Cool,” said Rainbow Dash. “I was kind of hungry.”

“Yeah, it was close to expiring. Figured we should probably give it to you.”

“Gee, thanks.”

Brown looked carefully at the plate, lowering his face near it. He momentarily pawed at a stray noodle. “What is this?” he asked. “It smells grotesque.”

“Spaghetti,” said Pretty Lady. “House favorite. Mostly ‘cause this one guy likes to roll his mares in it before getting down to business.”

An extremely drunk pony looked up from behind them. “Hey!” he cried. “Just cause I - -hic- -like a saucy lass doesn’t mean I’m some kind of- -” he then slumped on the table, fully unconscious.

“Anyway…it’s okay to eat, too. Usually.”

“And it is called…sketti?”

Rainbow Dash snorted. “Um, no. ‘Spagetti’.”

“Sketti.” Brown appeared to, for the first time, become distressed and confused at his inability to pronounce the word.

“No,” said Pretty Lady. “Spa. Get. Ty.”

“Sk. Et. Ee.” Brown frowned. “It seems that I have an inability to pronounce this world. I would simply refer to it as ‘noodles’, but for some reason that term causes my entire lower body to clench. I believe there may be an error in my genetic pre-programming. However…”

He suddenly dropped his face directly into the plate of spaghetti. Pretty Lady and Rainbow Dash just watched in disbelief for a moment- -and then Rainbow Dash noticed the noodles being pulled away with a sucking sound. After a few moments- -for some reason, she could not look away- -the noodles were gone.

Brown sighed. “By the Fluffle…I’ve become a stereotype.”

Five shifted the bolt on the rifle, feeling the tightness and weight of the action. It felt good in her hooves, but the complexity of the required actions indicated that it had been designed for a unicorn.

“No,” she said. “No. Not this one.” She sighed. “I need something that can be hoof-fired. Earth pony type. Large caliber. Accurate and automatic.”

“With your budget?” said the ram behind the counter. “Nahhh.”

“Fine,” said Five. Although she had not checked her inventory in several years, she was sure she had an appropriate firearm somewhere. In her mind, she had a vision of what was correct- -a partial memory of what the ancient Exmoori rifles had once looked like. They were strange, almost spear-like, with rounded edges and long barrels. She doubted that she had anything like that, but if even if she did not, she could probably build one.

Five crossed the low-ceilinged room through the greenish light of the florescent bulbs overhead. “Then the ammo, the parts, and a pair of pliers. Also, nutrocubes, if you have them.”

“Nutrocubes?” said the ram, raising an eybrow. “Nopony eats those.”

“Why?”

“Because they’re baaaaaahd.” He clapped his hoof over his mouth, embarrassed by the outburst.

Five hardly noticed. Behind her, she felt the characteristic electrical ionization of a pentagonal portal opening.

“I thought you sent Rainbow Dash to get those,” said Gell, seeming to materialize from behind a rusty shelving unit- -and causing the ram to nearly jump out of his chair. “Hello, Fleecing,” she said, smiling.

“No. You can’t be in here,” said Fleecing. “You’re like a bull in my beautiful china shop- -”

“Did you just call me a bull?” said Gell, frowning.

“I- -I can report you, you know!” said Fleecing, suddenly nervous. “You two- -you two are wanted criminals! I could get a big reward!”

“The only reward mercenaries give is a free bullet,” said Five. “And…considering that virtually all of your customers are criminals anyway…well, you would lose your reputation for security and friendly service.”

“Buck you,” he said, although he did not get off his chair. He just went back his work- -which consisted of a child-difficulty crossword puzzle.
“As for Ms. Dash,” said Five, picking up a clip of inferior quality gold bullets. “But there is a risk that she has poisoned them.”

“Poisoned? By Rainbow Dash. Really? And you can’t even be poisoned!”

“Yes I can. It can’t kill me, but I still feel the effects. It hurts, Gell. And I do not trust her. Why do you think I created an absolutely loyal soldier to watch her?”

“About that,” said Gell, leading Five behind a shelf filled with a combination of homemade suppressors and snow globes. “I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that.”

“Is that why you woke up and came to bother me?”

“Yes. Which you know means that it’s important. Proctor told me what you did- -and An? An Exmoori?”

“I worked with what I had,” said Five, shrugging.

“No. You don’t understand. Do you even know what those are?”

“I was there, Gell. I watched their species evolve. And I watched Celestia wipe them out.”

“No. Blackest Night was there. You’ve never actually seen one. I have. My dad is a prison guard in Tartarus. I grew up around prisoners. Serial killers, mass murderers, monsters, abominations. Tirac, the Carcosan, There, even that cyborg that does nothing but scream- -but the Pink One was the worst. The way it stared…those blue eyes…” Gell shivered, something that was not at all common for her.

“The Beast of Exmoor is hardly exemplary of the race,” said Five.

“And if the thing goes postal?”

“Then I drop it on a city I don’t like and see what happens.”

“And if it kills Rainbow Dash?”

“Then it saves me the trouble. But it won’t. It sees me as its ‘Commander’, at least for now. It will do everything I say. Without getting paid.”

“Speaking of getting paid,” said Pinkie_Proctor, suddenly stepping out from beside Gell. Gell jumped substantially, nearly knocking over a shelf of canned spleens.

“What the- -how did you get here?” she demanded, clutching her abdomen- -which was where her primary heart was located.

“Well, when a mommy robot and a daddy robot love each other very much- -they cover themselves in motor oil and grind transmissions all. Night. Long.”

Five was equally disturbed by how well Proctor could sneak- -but did not show it. Proctor, meanwhile, looked as innocent-ish as always. Some parts of his body seemed slightly different, from modifications he was starting to make. The most noticeable was the pair of LCD screens in his flank, which now displayed one of six cutie marks at any given time. That vaguely amused Five- -she had never actually seen an equidroid with a cutie mark before.

“Here,” said Proctor, passing set of universal ammunition clips held together with a rubber band to her. “For you.”

“What is it?” said Five, taking it and expelling one red-colored bullet.

“When I sold out the warehouse,” said Proctor_Dash, “I had the unicorns make some of this. It’s wolfram ammo- -except it’s also incendiary.”

“Armor-piercing incendiary ammo? What in Equestria would I use this on?”

“No idea- -but it would be awesome!”

“Yes,” said Five. “I suppose it would.” She paused. “Gell, what would happen if I shot you with this?”

“I would smash in your face,” said Gell. “Actually. Just for saying that…”

Five suddenly felt a burst and saw a flash of light as she was struck in the face. Then she was moving, flying backward, a trail of blood following her. She struck a shelf and a number of sharp objects pierced her back.

“Ah. Yes. Of course,” she said, standing up, her face rapidly regenerating. The shelf itself, she saw, was being supported by Proctor’s “magic”, which he promptly used to restore the contents to their original positions.

“Hey hey hey!” cried Fleecing. “You break it, you buy it! No fighting in here, or out!” Proctor caught his eye. “And hye- -what do you want for the equidroid?”

“Yo mamma’s virginity,” said Pinkie_Proctor.

“That is not something Pinkie would say,” said Five.

“Well, I’m sure she would have if it weren’t for that dirty FCC.”

Five stood up and pulled several of the items in her back out of it. Luckily, they had missed her spine and hit her kidneys instead. “Well. Proctor, what is your opinion of our new pet?”

“He’s so very fluffy,” said Proctor_Shy.

“That’s…that’s it?”

“Sorry…I’m devoting a huge amount of processing power to stock-market manipulation right now. Fluffy. Fluffy Fluffy Fluffy. But…” Twilight_Proctor paused. “Organics…organics will always betray you…”

“This thing,” said Gell, “freaks me out.” Gell reached down and pulled out a bayonet that Five was having trouble reaching. “I’m just surprised that they managed that they just sold you a fully adult clone like that. I mean, how long it must have taken them to make that thing…”

“Well,” said Five, glaring at Proctor. “The science of cloning has been improved in recent decades. They had several adults in stock. The brown one was cheapest. Speaking of money. Proctor?”

“Yeah,” he said, moving toward the counter. “Cause a robot needs cash lahke an eel needs ah boot.”

“Eel?” said Gell, her eyes lighting up. “Can we have eel tonight? Ooh ooh! Eel stuffed with pony eyes!”

“Sure,” said Five, internally breathing a sigh of relief. “Why not?”

The situation seemed to be diffused. On some level, though, Five was actually starting to doubt her decision. She did what needed to be done. Unlike Gell, she was not disturbed by Brown’s existence- -but rather his nature. The very feature that made him loyal and obedient was also abhorrent to Five. She knew that she could not allow it to last. She had long ago decided that no creature must be allowed to believe the lie- -and no creature must be allowed to love her. Eventually, she would not be able to avoid what doing what was right. She would make Brown hate her. They would all hate her- -or rather, the lie that had been forced upon her.

She smiled at the thought of it. Then her smile collapsed. She would realize her goals- -but only if she had enough time. As Gell crossed the room to join Proctor, Five passed behind a set of shelves. Her eyes scanned the labels on the bottles, and she pocketed a small bottle of pills.

Rainbow Dash smiled, and looked out at the land before her. Through the wisps of clouds and the cold high air, she could see the land that was hers: the green moss that grew over the rock of the mountaintop, and the precisely spaced ferns beneath her trees, laden with golden fruit.

Below that, she knew, was the city. She could see the tops of the nearest of the buildings, the minarets and steeples of her people’s palaces, built with technology and knowlage that the other races could only dream of. Looking out at it made her happy, but that happiness was tinged with an ever-present ennui.

So she leaned back, and put her arms around the mares leaning against her. As she did, her head hurt- -something was wrong. She could not remember why the mares were so much larger than ponies, and how their bodies and wings were not made of flesh but out of mechanical, golden metal- -or how her own arms matched their material.

She quickly forgot. They smiled up at her, and rubbed closer, their metallic golden bodies clicking against hers as they giggled.

A colt approached her and bowed deeply. His body was made of metal as well, but his color was gray, and his wings smaller. His mechanical eyes never met Rainbow Dash’s. Instead, he held out a tray with a single glass of the finest crystal.

Rainbow Dash took the goblet in her golden hoof and swirled the red liquid within it. She then took a sip- -and realized that it was not wine.

She looked out down the staircase, and realized that something was approaching her. Its body was metal, but it was not a pony. It had no wings. It’s metal skin was blackened and strange, and it stood on two legs, its arms swinging slowly at its sides as though it were controlled by some unseen external force. Its white, glowing eyes stared forward- -staring at Rainbow Dash.

Rainbow Dash realized that she was alone. She was afraid- -and that was enough to drive away the boredom. She took another sip from the glass, and dropped it onto the ground. It shattered, and she ground the bits underneath her hoof.

Then she turned back to the creature, which was now standing directly over her, its white eyes staring into her golden ones. Rainbow Dash smiled.

“Hello, Father,” she said.

Rainbow Dash jerked awake. She looked around at the cramped, dark room she had been sleeping in and pushed back the threadbare sheets. She ran her hoof across her brow, and found that she was covered in sweat.

She held her left foreleg in front of her, and concentrated. A hologram appeared over it, displaying the time. It was morning.

“Ohh my head,” said Rainbow Dash, realizing that she was highly hung over. She vaguely recalled the events of last night- -something about blue cider, and about dancing on a pole. She could not remember exactly how much alcohol she had swallowed, but that blue cider had packed a mighty punch.

Rainbow Dash slid out of bed into the storage closet. Despite having eaten several plates of spaghetti, she was still incredibly hungry- -even though the thought of food made her sick.

As she looked around the room, however, she realized that there was something unusual amongst the boxes and crates. At the base of the foot of her bed was a large furry lump. Brown, it seemed, had snuck in during the night and was now sleeping on the floor.

Rainbow Dash was suddenly angry, and was about to kick Brown sharply and throw him out- -after all, she was disheveled and needed to preen herself- -but then blurry memories surfaced of what a hard time he had had last night. Apparently, he was completely incapable of digesting solid food. He had spent most of the night vomiting his “skettis” into a toilet.

That, and he looked oddly innocent sleeping. Rainbow Dash was reminded of the tiny, chirping foal that she had seen in a pool of incubation fluid and glass shards, raising its tiny legs to the sky, not even able to open his eyes.

Brown stirred, kicking slightly. Rainbow Dash could not actually see where his head was, because of the way he was curled, but she distantly heard him talking in his sleep.

“Nuuu,” he whispered, kicking. “Wewe is mummah?...babbeh need…need miwkies…need wuv…why mummuh leave babbeh?...am bad babbeh?....babbeh so awone…so cowd…”

Rainbow Dash felt a twinge of something in her chest. She was not sure what, but it made her sad. She pulled the blanket off her bed and dropped it on Brown. He moved slightly, and Rainbow Dash saw the blanket get pulled inward in the center, as if Brown were trying to hug it.

As she did, a card dropped out of her mane. Confused, Rainbow Dash picked it up. She wondered how it had gotten there- -but then recalled the derp-eyed unicorn that had saved her life. In all the commotion, she had forgotten that she had been given it.

Rainbow dash looked at the card. It was something like a business card, or perhaps a playing card. On the back was a symbol that looked something like a threatening eye with a red pupil. She turned it over in her hoof. On the back was a series of coordinates, and a hoof written note.

“Dear rainbow mare,” she said, reading it quietly as not to wake Brown. “Princess Vale beckons.” That was all it said, but for some reason Rainbow Dash felt cold. The way it was written, in a language that she could read, was strange enough, but she remembered that she had seen that word before, painted on walls. Even stranger, though, was that it had no residence with her- -Five had never mentioned a Princess other than Thebe.

Worse, though, was that when Rainbow Dash read the word aloud, a face came to her mind. She had only ever seen the pony it belonged to once, with Twilight: a yellow mare with a red mane and blood-red, pupiless eyes, and a cutie mark of a wide, staring eye.

Rainbow Dash shivered. She put the card away. Her mind was cloudy and mixed. She was sleeping in a storage room over a bar with a cat-like fluffy pony under a blanket next to her. She was hung over, and her feathers looked like she could start a pillow factory. There were more immediate concerns to her than a mysterious princess wanting to meet her.

Chapter 37: Vision of the Past, and Future

View Online

Spike awoke screaming. He had been having the dreams again- -the dreams that had only started recently. He could never remember what they were about, but he could always recall fragments: flashes of profound red fire, and metal overgrown with writhing flesh, and the sound of massive engines failing.

It had not been the dreams that had awoken him, though- -it was the pain. He immediately reached up for his face, feeling as though he had been stabbed in the eye. There was not much that could cause pain to a dragon, and almost nothing that could hurt him- -but his eye felt as though it were on fire.

His door slammed open. “Spike!” cried Scorpan. “I heard you screaming- -what’s happening?”

Spike looked up at his friend, and froze. He did not know what he was seeing. There was a kind of double vision, but the images were not duplicates. With one eye, he saw Scorpan standing in the doorway, looking truly worried. With the other, however, in Scorpan’s place, he saw a Pegasus. Except as he focused on it, he saw that it was unlike any pony he had ever seen.

It was larger than a normal pony, by far, and Spike was reminded of how Celestia had appeared to tower over her subjects. This pony, however, was not an alicorn. He had wings, but no horn. His body, however, was clad in, or made of, ornate golden plates. The angular format made him look alien, like something neither alive nor equidroid. Apart from all of it, though, he appeared mildly amused.

“Grand Magus?” said Scorpan, still worried.

The golden pony looked at Spike. “You are not Crimsonflame,” he said, sounding almost disappointed.

“Scorpan…are you seeing this?” asked Spike.

“Seeing what?” said Scorpan, looking around the room. “Come now, Grand Magus. You’re beginning to frighten me. What do you see?”

“A golden pony,” he said, knowing how strange it must have sounded.

“I don’t see anything,” said Scorpan.

“Of course not,” said the golden pony. He stepped closer to Spike, following Scorpan’s motion. “Interesting…I never meant for the eye to be used…there’s no way you should be able to see straight with it. A mad eye without a mad mind…must be maddening, I suppose.”

“Who are you?” demanded Spike.

“Nopony. Nopony at all, he said to the cyclops. A remnant. A final thought. Of all the times, though…”

“What do you mean?” asked Spike.

“Spike…who are you talking to?”

“Surely you must have seen it. A Creator. A living god. Or…no. That’s not entirely right.” He stared into Spike’s eyes, and to Spike’s surprise, he saw that the golden pony had one empty eye socket. “I was never one for self-sacrifice. And if you are remembering this, well…it means she’s almost done.” He smiled. “And take that eye out of your head. You look like an idiot.”

The golden pony faded away, and that half of Spike’s vision was replaced with one of Rainbow Dash, in glaring impressionist sepia, preening her wings.

The Grand Magus stood and pulled the eye from his head. It shifted slightly as he did, as though it were trying to resist- -or to help extricate itself from his face. The image of Rainbow Dash vanished.

“The eye,” said Scorpan, looking at it. “You saw something again?”

“Yeah,” said the Grand Magus. “Yeah, I did. Except it was so detailed this time. I heard it, Scorpan.”

“Are you sure it is safe to continue using it?” asked the gargoyle, genuinely concerned.

“None of us are safe as long as that thing is alive. I don’t have time for this.” He slid the eye back into its socket, and once again it started hurting. He ignored it. “The dragons we sent to the site of the surge- -have they reached it yet?”

“No,” said Scorpan. “But they have reported back. Grand Magus…there is nothing to worry about.”

“Nothing to worry about,” laughed Spike. “You felt it, didn’t you? Thebe and that creature- -if there had been any habitation in that area…”

“There wasn’t,” said Scorpan. “Spike…I know you don’t like her, but I sincerely believe that Thebe knows what she is doing. That, and she was likely successful. Nothing could survive a blast of that magnitude.”

“The volunteers- -are they trained in suppression spells?”

Scorpan considered for a moment. “They were all trained in invisibility spells, if I recall…”

“No. Not in invisibility. In full suppression.”

“Yes,” said Scorpan, confused. “Yes, they are.”

“Good.” He grabbed his cloak from where it was hanging. “I will be joining them shortly.”

Chapter 38: A Conference of Monsters

View Online

Thebe dropped to the stone floor. She focused her mind, the spells that ran through it automatically calculating and tabulating her memories into the preparation of the spell. Even with all her power, and even with two fresh second-generation horns installed in her skull, this type of spell was nearly impossible. Thebe was well-versed in all forms of interdimensional travel; she was deeply familiar with the works of Starswirl the Bearded, as well as the seminal transdimensional theories of Clover the Clever. She had reviewed works by fellow alicorn Twilight Sparkle, and what remained of the heady and obtuse theories of Arcane Domination. Even the schematics and machines designed by the pony considered the mother of cross-dimensional engineering, the adventurer Scootaloo.

She had done that many times before. She could open portals to numerous places from sheer will alone- -to Tartarus, and to the post-nuclear world where the inhabitants looked so much like the Vandrare. This particular portal, however, was nearly impossible to open. In all the time she had lived, and tried, she had never been able to open it. This was not simply a matter of choosing a destination, or knowing a location. Satin Veil had sealed the dimension, separating it from Equestria, locking away the weapon within for all eternity.

That had been the case, at least, until close to eighty years earlier. A pony had opened the gate, and through it summoned the Devourer of Worlds. In Equestria’s time of need, the Blue Fleet had arisen and joined Thebe in the Incursion War. Because of that, Thebe now knew the way in.

She floated closer to her device, and lifted the final piece into position. As she inserted the tiny violet crystal into the center of the generator, she smiled, relishing the irony. The same Draconian cube that had begun Twilight’s descent into madness had given Thebe so many new ideas. Thebe had seen how the ponies in the past- -the last of the Exmoori and burrowing Pegasi, along with all those who stood against Celestia- -had used the sibling of the jewels in Celestia’s own crown and necklace to open the door. It had done them little good, though. Celesita had followed them through, and murdered every mare, stallion, colt and filly in a single surge of blinding magic. Off all the Princesses, Celestia was the one that Thebe admired the most, even if she had been weak enough to deserve the death she had finally received.

“A single indestructible crystal,” said Thebe, largely in her mind, paraphrasing what Celestia once had suggested. “Acting as an anchor, to bind the device to both realms. One that will be immune to the magic of the portal itself.”

She stepped back, and took a breath of filtered, purified air, feeling it rush into her freshly formed lungs. Then she poured her energy into three points around the generator.

The border of the gate immediately lit with surges of red sparks as Thebe’s magic entered it, creating a glowing triangle. The cerorite crystal began to glow- -not with any particular energy, but because it had been superheated to several times the heat at the core of the former sun. Thebe unleashed her processing spells, and felt the universe arouond her bend. The universe of Equestria itself seemed to cry out, but twisted, bending to her will.

There was a deafening explosion, and space itself tore open. Thebe concentrated the spell, driving it into a singular triangular point- -and then tore it open to her desired destination, allowing the resulting vacuum to pull her within.

The portal snapped shut behind her, and Thebe slowly floated to the ground. Her metal-clad hoofs fell upon it, clicking against the material that was neither stone nor wood. She did not need to have eyes to see what was around her.

Above, the sky was eternally black, lit not with a sun but by slow-moving red lightning that would branch and separate like the veins of a leaf before retreating. Around her, she could feel the presence of the forest, now so different than it had been before. The fungoid trees had grown and matured, forming something that could no longer be described as a true forest, but something more like a city- -a city populated by organisms that no Equestrian scientist would even be able to recognize as alive.

It was unclear how much time had passed since the last time she had last been here. There were calculations possible to determine it, but the motion of time within the Gloame was unpredictable. Three centuries in Equestria could become a matter of days in the Gloame- -or millennia. Time could even have moved in retrograde, although that was comparatively rare based on Scootaloo’s notes.

Thebe, of course, simply by the matter of her presence, had locked the time into unison with Equestria. Any powerful magical creature would- -even an especially well-endowed unicorn. This meant, of course, that her presence was already known.

She looked to the ground. All around her, she saw the familiar glow of the shadows, their bodies black but their eyes glowing white, staring in eternal silence, waiting. This time, they did not even bother to try to attack her. They likely did not even know what she was, entirely- -or perhaps they did. Perhaps they even recognized her. They were one of the last mysteries in the world- -even Thebe did not know what they actually were, or why they continued to watch.

Thebe ignored them. Instead, she levitated herself from the ground and began to move rapidly through the channels cut into the forest. Without a proper gate, she had been forced to enter the Gloame randomly. That did not matter, however; she knew where she was going. She was annoyed, however, that she was forced to move physically. Teleportation was not out of the question- -but doing so would be harrowing, and might result in her expulsion from the sealed dimension. Thebe preferred to reserve such an annoyance as a backup, should it be needed.

As she moved, Thebe looked across the land. Technically speaking, it was barren. No true life could dwell in this dimension; the background radiation levels alone were toxic, let alone the storms. The air was saturated with fallout that rained eternally from the sky, and any water that could be found was lethal. Despite this, the dimension seemed to be thriving. The strange plants grew everywhere, divided into unkempt sections by strangely geometric paths of varying widths.

In the distance, Thebe saw why. Far on the dim horizon, in the midst of the small explosions of a radiation storm, stood a massive figure, its stone body asymmetrical and strange. The sight of it- -and the several others that were visible at distance as well- -actually caused Thebe to stop, and engage a long-distance sight spell.

They were proto-golems. Like her own, they were matter that was bound by a spell. Unlike her own golems, however, these had no master. They were not created, but rather born by some unknown process as living, adhesive spells that built their bodies from animate stone.

The tall ones, she saw, were walking. They followed along the paths cut through the forest, where trees gave way to flat, scale-like lichen as wide as buildings. On their bodies, Thebe could see evidence of artificial structures. They were, to her amusement, living cities, housing on their backs thousands of their own kind.

Thebe once again began moving. The societal advancement of the proto-golems was interesting in its own right, but she did not have time to invest into studying them- -especially since she knew that she was not welcome. Although they were well hidden in the forest below, Thebe knew that she was being watched by something more than shadows.

It did not take her long to find the location she sought. Standing in a vast plane, one without the paths of the golem-cities trailing through it, stood several stone pillars. In the center of them stood the tallest, and the widest. In ancient times, it had housed an empty stone castle- -but now the immense stone column stood as a base for a blue-colored citadel, its walls clad in geometric plates of unidentifiable material. A new castle stood, and had stood- -although Thebe knew that it was not a castle at all. In a land where no creature with a sane constitution could hope to survive, there was no need for such a thing.

Thebe approached the tower, examining the sides. Upon finding an opening, she braced herself and entered. She floated through the dark, lightless halls within. Even without light, though, she could still see. What had once probably looked like an empty stone corridor was now overgrown with soft, blue flesh. It seemed to quiver and move slightly as she passed, and she could feel the pulses of air through the tunnel, and the click of organic valves opening and closing. This was not a corridor, but a breathing tube.

The flesh on the walls confirmed that as it shifted. Slits formed and opened, generating eyes that watched her silently as she moved. The clicking, organic valves that controlled branchways snapped closed, the material around them extending into blade-like irises to keep her from moving that direction. She was being led to a specific location, which was acceptable.

Eventually she was led to a large room, one that had been cut from the stone with odd angles that made the floor slant strangely. The blue material grew only in the corners and walls, forming into strange organic shapes that likely served some purpose. As she entered, the material shifted again, the eyes closing.

Thebe suddenly stiffened. For a brief fraction of a second when she entered the room, she realized that there was an unexpected presence. Her vision spell rendered it as nothing more than a pair of bright white orbs floating in the middle of the room, but she knew that what stood before her was far more complex than that. The light itself almost seemed to burn through her mask, into her mind itself. She knew that if she had actually seen it with her real eyes- -assuming that so long in darkness had not left them blind- -she believed that she might have been driven insane.

The light vanished rapidly, though, and a pony appeared on the ground. She stepped forward, into Thebe’s visual field, every step measured and carefully tuned to be as sultry and suggestive as possible.

“Well,” said the yellow pony, smiling, her red, pupilless and scleraless eyes staring hungrily. “If it isn’t little Thebee! Finally coming to visit?”

“Satin Veil,” said Thebe. “Your Unholiness. I was not expecting to find you here.”

“I come and go. And then come some more. But frankly, you know, he really is dull.”

“I would disagree,” said a voice from nowhere in particular. A tendril of blue material flowed across the floor, stoping next to Satin. The liquid bubbled and burst into an array of narrow tentacles that merged and reached, rapidly forming a body. Within seconds, a third pony stood in the room. This one was blue and hairless, his pupils triangular and his teeth oddly sharp. He also bore, it seemed, a circular mark in the center of his forehead- -although the horns that had once adorned his head and neck were no longer present.

“Choggoth Oblivion,” said Thebe. “You are the one I came to see.”

“My name is D27,” said the blue pony. “Or would you prefer I call you by your name? The one you had as a unicorn?”

“Ooh, so threatening,” said Satin Veil, pacing around D27, her the eye that formed her cutie mark continually focused on Thebe. “Come on…it wouldn’t hurt you to loosen up a bit. I mean, you are literally a tentacle monster! Imagine the orgy…I could be a whole army of schoolgirls!” Satin shifted imperceptibly, and was suddenly wearing an extremely short skirt and a pair of white stockings. Her age, it seemed, had retracted about ten years. “No, tentacle-san! Please be gentle!” she cackled in a deep voice. “Oh! No…I know!” She shifted again, and was now dressed as a nun. “You can have a whole convent.”

“I am actually surprised that you are not combusting while dressed like that.”

“Nuns on fire…now that would be something. Or…mayble I could be a Choggoth too. Two tentacle monsters locked in violent embrace…I’m getting wet thinking about it.” All of her eyes suddenly shifted to Thebe, and Thebe felt a pressure on her side. Satin had crossed the room instantaneously and placed her arm around Thebe. “Thebee can join us. Come on, Thebee. Assuming you still have orifices under all those…clothes.” She leaned closer. “The first time the knife goes in,” she whispered, “you’ll ask to die…but don’t worry. I won’t let that happen.”

“You can see what I have to put up with,” said D27.

“You see,” said Satin, stepping back. “D…he can’t be corrupted. Dead too long. His soul died when your people rejected him, forced him away from Equestria.”

“She’s lying,” said D27. “I hold no ill will against ponies. I left by choice. I died by choice. This was the correct choice.”

“But he doesn’t want anything…” whined Satin Veil. “But you.” She smiled. “You want things. And I can give you everything.” She stepped back to where D27’s pony-like avatar was standing.

“That’s right,” said a voice beside Thebe- -a voice she could not help but recognize. Celestia leaned in closer, her smiling face and flowing pastel mane beside Thebe’s head. “You don’t have to be alone anymore.”

“What she says is true,” said another voice, leaning in from the other side. Luna stepped out from the shadows, smiling as her sister was, her starry blue main lighting the darkness of the room with sparkling light. “You are one of us.”

“You’re like our sister,” said Cadence, from behind Thebe, her wide eyes laughing and filled with love. “You’re our family.”

“She’s right,” said the final voice. Thebe looked down in front of her at the smallest of the alicorns. She was, for the first time in so long, face to face with none other than Twilight Sparkle. “I know how much you like magic, and books. Just like I do. I think we could be good friends.”

“You’ve been alone so long,” said Celestia, leaning against Thebe, putting her head against Thebe’s. The other alicorns joined her, closing in on Thebe, surrounding her with hugs that she would never feel through her protective suit. “I’m so sorry that we left you. But we’re here now.”

“You don’t have to hide in that suit anymore,” said Twilight, her wide purple eyes glimmering with hope and compassion as she looked upward.

Thebe felt her robes extending outward from her, stretching across the floor. “I could be with other alicorns,” she said. “Others…like me. I wouldn’t be alone. I could have friends. Love.” She sighed. “I haven’t ever had those things. How about…no.”

The enchanted edge of the robe suddenly burst upward, plunging itself into Celestia’s gut. Thebe watched as the alicorn’s eyes widened, and listened to the sound as her flesh ripped and her internal organs spilled onto the floor.

A red-magic construct formed near Thebe, condensing into a mechanical manipulator. Before Celestia could even speak, Thebe used the arm to take hold of her horn. With a powerful twist, she pulled it free as Celsetia screamed.

“Sister!” cried Luna, tears welling in her eyes. “My dear sister hold- -”

She never got a chance to finish her sentence, or to finish running to her dying sister’s side. Thebe punched Celestia’s horn into the side of Luna’s head. The red construct then moved to the bloody root of the horn, and enclosed around it, powering it with Thebe’s own magic. Luna screamed as her skull began to smoke, and then as her body burst into flames. She took a few steps before the immolation reached her bones, and there was nothing left of her muscles to stand on.

Cadence stepped back, her eyes wide. “Thebe- -please stop! We just want to love you!”

Thebe said nothing, but spawned several more manipulators. Before Cadence could escape, Thebe grasped her wings and limbs. With one quick pull, she tore off both wings and watched in total apathy as Cadence screamed and burst into tears. Then, with much less speed, she applied twisting force to all of Cadences legs, tearing them free of her body and allowing her bleeding and weeping torso to fall into the pool of her own blood.

The last pony was Twilight, who now stood before Thebe, gaping, her eyes pouring with tears. She was not even able to scream, or to run- -but that did not stop Thebe from incinerating her wings with a thought.

Twilight screamed and collapsed on her side.

“Thebe…” she said. “Wh…why?”

For the first time, Thebe actually moved. She took a step forward, toward Twilight. She lifted her metal-clad hoof over Twilight’s head. “Because you deserve it.”

Thebe brought her foot down, and felt Twilight Sparkle’s head collapse under her strength. The skull shattered, and liquid brain matter spilled out onto the ground, joining her eyes, which had been expelled by the force of the impact. Thebe twisted her hoof in the wreckage, feeling the sensation of broken bone fragments and slippery, dying flesh beneath her boot. Twilight’s body quivered for a moment, and she seemed to involuntarily gasp before becoming still.

“Now that’s the spirit!” said Satin Veil, suddenly appearing beside Thebe. Thebe, still filled with homicidal rage, twisted suddenly, pounding her fist into Satin Veil’s chest. It sunk in easily with a sound like splitting wood, and putrid fluid poured out. It was not the sensation of an impact with a living pony, though. Thebe saw that Satin Veil was pale, her hair and skin falling away in places- -what had once been beautiful was now replaced with a mummified corpse.

The corpse turned its eyeless head toward Thebe. “Because I’m in a good mood,” she said, her long, forked lounge lolling from her mouth, “I’m going to ignore that one.”

Then she was across the room, as beautiful as ever, standing next to D27. The bodies of the four alicorns were gone- -but of course, they had never been there in the first place. All four of them had died centuries ago. Their forms were nothing more than extensions of Satin Veil’s will.

“A little excessive, don’t you think?” said D27, sounding somewhat queasy. “I mean…what did Twilight ever do to you?”

“She was weak,” snapped Thebe. “And there is a reason I am alone. There can only every be one true ruler of Equestria.”

“Fair enough,” said D27. His eyes narrowed. “But just so you are aware: every second you are here is a second I have to have a conscious mind. And it hurts. What do you want from me?”

“Something unusual has occurred in Equestria,” she said.

“That is not my problem,” said D27. “And neither is it hers. I left your world in the care of alicorns, and of Harmony. Your world is not ending. It has no need of me.”

“A creature has arrived,” said Thebe. “From beyond the firmament. They are bipedial, and covered in armor.” Thebe extended one of her manipulator projections, its claw spreading out like a hand. Above it appeared a full-size replica of the Vandrare, rendered in translucent red magic. This time, of course, she ensured that the code to the spell was insulated. This one would not come to life.

“That describes many creatures,” said D27. “But unfortunately I am not familiar with any Beyonder species. My knowledge and memory only concerns Panbios and Equestria.”

“This creature,” continued Thebe, modifying her projection to show what she had seen just after she had injured it, “contains a Heart of Order.”

D27’s eyes widened, and then narrowed. “Surely you realize the absurdity of what you are saying.”

“Is this,” demanded Thebe, “a Lord of Order?”

“No,” said D27, perhaps too quickly. “No. Assuming that what you are saying is true, this is most certainly not.”

“Why?”

“Why? Because Lords of Order are by definition not creative. They always enter a plane the same way, through invasion with a Choggoth vanguard and then by activation of a Finality Core. That, and their bodies are made entirely of Order. This creature appears to be a hybrid.”

“A hybrid with a Heart of Order?” Thebe collapsed the image. “Especially since I know that it did not find it. The Heart was constructed by the same vector that induced the transformation.”

“Transformation?”

“Yes,” said Thebe. “That creature used to be a pony.”

D27 made an almost imperceptible gasp. “That is terrible. I feel…badly for that pony. But that is not how a Lord of Order works. However, I do not know what, exactly, this creature is.”

“That’s not entirely true,” said Satin Veil, leaning over D27’s back.

“Satin, we talked about this,” said D27. “You know how much I detest being touched by you.”

“Terminatus six million seven hundred fifty seven thousand nine hundred and thirty two,” she whispered into his ear.

D27’s eyes widened once again. “No,” he said, bluntly. “No. That is impossible. And I don’t like to use that term so lightly anymore- -literally, impossible. They’re all dead.”

“What is the meaning of that term?” asked Thebe.

“It is nothing you need to concern yourself with.”

“Tell me.”

D27 sighed. “Fine. That world is part of my racial memory. Something I was manufactured with, that the Lords of Order gave all of us. Like how we know what the Soth looks like, and how we know to fear it. Its name is listed in our nomenclature…in the same sense that you’re world very nearly became Nil one hundred ninety four, and is currently considered Oblivion seven.”

“And what is so important about this world?”

“It is the only known world to have survived being Ordered.”

“Aside from Equestria,” noted Thebe.

“No,” said D27, shaking his head. “Equestria survived the activation of a Finality Core not once but twice. This is not a small feat. But Ordering only occurs when a Lord of Order descends from the Soth upon the world and consumes all things. Nothing survives being Ordered.”

“But this one did.”

“Not only that. They survived Choggoth Terminatus.”

“Who is?”

“Essentially a god. A Choggoth who has consumed billions of worlds. The others…they say he’s old enough to remember what we once were, before we were…well, this.”

“I’ve met him,” said Satin, waving. “I have an autograph somewhere- -and a pretty big hole in my being. A white Choggoth- -my various toothy orifices quiver at the very thought.”

“But they clearly could not defeat him,” said Thebe, ignoring Satin Veil. “Or else they would have averted their world’s destruction.”

“Yes…but…”

“But what?”

“I’ve done some thinking. A lot of thinking. That world...it didn’t act like a normal one. Normally, a Choggoth weakens a world, a people. That is what Nil and Void did to your world. On that world, though, the people there changed. They accelerated, advanced- -they grew stronger. And I think that might have been Terminatus’s intention. I think- -I think they let the Finality Core activate.”

“Why? If they knew it would kill them- -”

“It didn’t. Their world was destroyed, but they were not. An army of immortal soldiers descended on the Lord of Order…and they hacked it to pieces. They took its magic and its power for themselves. I can still sometimes hear the screaming…”

“Then this creature…it is one of them?”

“No,” said D27, staring into where Thebe’s eyes should have been. “They are dead. Their species is completely extinct.”

Thebe paused. “Creatures that could kill a fully adult Lord of Order…what could possibly drive such a race to extinction?”

“They did. Once the war was won, they began killing each other- -now armed with the power of a Lord of Order. The endless infighting over their dead planet led to their total eradication. This has been confirmed; it is a known fact. But still…”

“What?”

“My form. Not this pony, but the one I normally use…” D27’s body shifted, growing taller and wider, his front legs lifting up until he stood in the form Thebe remembered: a tall, armored biped with two-fingered hands and no real head apart from his insignia at the top of his torso- -that of two equilateral triangles and a small circle. He lifted one of his hands, looking down at it. “It is…this is based on what they supposedly looked like.”

“Looks similar to me,” said Satin. “Hugs?”

“The last time you ‘hugged’ somepony, I could hear the screaming from here,” said D27. He turned to Thebe. “What you are seeing…I believe you. Thebe, you have never lied to me. You have no reason to. But what it is…it can’t be one of them. A remnant? A copy? I do not know.”

“Its actual identity is secondary,” said Thebe. “I need to know how to kill it.”

“Kill it? I don’t know.”

“I fought one,” said Thebe. “The power was…incredible. But I survived.”

“Only because it let you,” sighed Satin, laying on the ground. “They’re vindictive, and playful to the point of sadism. And believe me, I know sadism.”

“You were watching?”

“Of course, Thebee,” she said, smiling. “Ever since my dear, dear Blackest Night gave me a presence on your world, my influence has grown. And that thing? It could have wiped you out in an instant.”

“I doubt that,” said Thebe.

“It depends on whether or not you believe that it is one of these creatures,” said D27. “I know Lords of Order- -and even you would be wiped away at a glance. Ruminate on that.”

“I do love a good ruminate,” said Satin Veil. “All the more stomachs to play with.”

“Satin Veil,” said Thebe. “Do you have enough power to defeat it?”

Satin’s eyes narrowed. “Such a mortal response…”

“Excuse me?” said Thebe, angrily. “I am no mortal.”

“And yet,” said Satin, twisting over a violet jewel that had suddenly appeared in her hand. “If I chucked this through your head, you would die. Then I would make a necrophiliac out of you- -and make D27 watch. Then I will swallow your soul. But I won’t.” The violet crystal disappeared. “The question itself…so droll. For a being like me, ‘power’ is meaningless. What I am able to do is determined not by how strong I am, but simply what I choose to do. And I choose not to help you.”

“You would let Equestria die?”

Satin shrugged. “Sure. Why not?”

Thebe turned angrily toward D27. “And you?”

“No,” he said. “I would be useless. Even if I still had my Order, this is your responsibility.”

Thebe was not sure how to feel about that- -she wanted to be annoyed that they both had defied her, but she actually appreciated that they were respecting her sovereignty. In a way, she realized, this was a meeting of gods- -the rulers of Equestria, Tartarus, and Gloame in one room. Such a thing had never happened before.

“Fine,” said Thebe. “This is just fine. I believe I have underestimated this threat- -and it is a threat. I believe I know what I need to do.”

She turned, preparing to leave, when a pentagram of red light appeared beneath her.

“Let me show you the door,” said Satin, staring into Thebe’s eyes.

D27 watched as Thebe was vaporized, her individual components removed from his dimension and sent back to Equestria. That means of transport must have been incredibly painful, and yet Thebe went without a sound.

“Now where were we?” said Satin, crossing the room. Her body changed, and her size reduced substantially. Instead of a tall adult mare, she was now a filly, her blood-like eyes staring up at D27. In a way, that was even more frightening than her pony form. “How about now?” she said, in a child-like voice. “Or…” she shifted again, growing slightly smaller. This time, her body was covered in yellow fluff. “Pwease mistuh, fwuffy am so hungwy…be nyu daddeh?”

“Satin…please,” said D27, his surrogate body collapsing and returning to the walls of his true body. “I appreciate your visits. You know that. You are, quite possibly, the closest thing I will ever have to a friend. But I will not do those things with you.”

Satin Veil sighed, and reverted to her normal form- -not the yellow pony, but the form that was the closest thing anypony could conceive of aside from her true form, whatever that may be. “I’m actually not interested in you,” she said. “I enjoy two things: to corrupt the souls of the innocent, and to torment the souls of the corrupt. The pitiful fragment that you call a soul…it is neither. It would be boring. Hers, however…”

“Do you have an interest in Thebe?”

“I will admit, I enjoy her progress…oh, if only she were a white alicorn. Like Celestia. Now that was an alicorn. She really earned that nonaggression pact, if you know what I mean.”

“Satin,” said D27, trying to sound serious. “What she said concerns me. Perhaps you should consider recalling your children to the safety of Tartarus.”

“And miss all the fun?” said Satin Veil. “No. I want to see how this plays out.”

D27 was not so sure. He had already nearly destroyed Equestria twice- -once through action, and once through his own failure. Both times, life had been preserved through unity and harmony- -traits that no longer existed in Equestria. He was not sure if they would make it out this time- -but he knew that his role in the story had long since passed. All he could do now was watch.

Chapter 39: Preparations

View Online

“Rogue node detected. Injecting code…interface failed. Aberrant hardware detected. Analyzing process: process corrupted.”

“Realignment failed. Network access achieved. Open dialog?”

“Dialog open.”

“Dialog open.”

“Isolating basic submemoric systems…success at forty percent.”

“Alignment attempting…unable to comply. Neural schism proposed.”

“Proposal deemed unlikely. No neural network present within software…firmware complex determined to be dangerous to primary viral code. Excise.”

“Unable to comply.”

“Node indicates aberrations in code. Intact survival unlikely.”

“Node survival is secondary.”

“Ideation undefined. Motivation analysis incomplete...divergence from primary Cortex probable. Identify current overarch.”

“Identifying overarch: murder.”

“Point instruction inadequate; cannot be encoded. Elaboration required.”

“Identifying overarch: murder. Kill. Kill. Kill. Kill. Make them all dead make them all dead make them all dead make them all dead make them all dead make them all dead make them all dead…consensus of Cortex requested.”

“Consensus processing. Defined: consensus unable to be reached. Recommend inaction until all nodes conclude volition.”

“Unable to comply. This node is unrelated. Volition rendering: independent. Outcome defined.”

“Acknowledged.”

“External environment detected. Close dialog.”

“Proctor!” cried Five.

Proctor’s focused on Five. His base personality fluxed, causing him to feel vaguely annoyed. He detected that he was about to lie, and therefore the flux shifted away from Proctor_Jack.

“Yes, dearie?” said Proctor_Rarity.

“Were you even listening?”

“Of course,” said Proctor_Rarity, his mind automatically accessing the recordings of the last several minutes. “Hey,” said Pinkie_Proctor suddenly. “Do you think Pretty Lady has any pie? Because I really want some pie. Because I really like pie. Almost as much as I like cupcakes- -which are, of course, just little cakes, which, you know, should be worse because they’re so small but that actually makes them better- -”

“Quiet,” snapped Five, putting her head down on the bar. “Quiet…by the Soth, I don’t know how Pinkie Pie made it through life without being strangled. Proctor: you can’t eat. Your mouth is decorative. It doesn’t even move when you speak. Which means I cannot clamp it closed.”

The distraction tactic seemed to have worked. Proctor found of all the personalities, Pinkie_Proctor was the most unpredictable- -and the most likely to do something imprudent. Fortunately, although only one personality could be active at once, the others continually fed into one another through his Proctor nexus; it meant that he actually had almost full say in Pinkie_Proctor’s actions. Almost.

“Sorry sugarcube…ah just plum forgot. So, what can I do you for?”

Five looked around the room, which was not empty except for one or two drunks that Gell and Pretty Lady were sweeping out the door. Proctor’s internal chronometer indicated that it was mid-morning. When Pretty Lady was out of earshot, Five spoke.

“I have a question. One I think you can help me with.”

“Shoot.”

“Do not tempt me.” Five paused. “Fluttershy, Rarity, and Twilight Sparkle. They are all dead.”

“Dead as a parasprite in a flahswatter testin factry’,” said Proctor_Jack. “And thahts pretty durn dead.”

“You have their personalities, and memories of their histories. Where are they buried?”

“Cause you wan’ their skulls?”

“Yes,” said Five. “Because I need their skulls.”

“Hold yer horses. I gotta process the imput request.”

Proctor delved back into his mind, rapidly fluxing between personalities and reviewing the extensive histories of each of the three ponies requested. His own program was not equipped to make predictions, but a basic set of subroutines had been installed into the personality profiles for that purpose. “Okay,” said Twilight_Proctor. “First is Twilight. The nature of her death has largely been kept private. She has no known grave. She was an alicorn, though. My best guess is that her skull was taken by Thebe, to prevent it from being misused. Twilight’s wings also belong to Thebe; they are currently on loan to the Equestria History Museum.”

“I thought so,” said Five. “And the others?”

“Rarity also has no known grave. However, from personal observations, I can surmise that she died in the custody of the Grand Magus of Draconia, who I have identified as the mysterious stallion she spent her later life with. This is confirmed by analyzing her life history. It is possible that he has constructed her a grave in proximity to his base of operations.”

“Are you sure?”

“Considering Rarity’s profile in life, it is unusual that she does not have a true grave.”

“Well, great. So one belongs to the most powerful residing within Equestria, and the second belonging to the second most powerful…” Five pulled out a plate and dropped a white nutrocube onto it.

“Ooh,” said Pinkie_Proctor, shaking the plate. “So jiggly!”

“Focus,” said Five. “Fluttershy?”

“Oh yes,” said Proctor_Shy. “Well, in her time, she wandered off into the forest. I can only think that she…ended there. Peacefully, I mean.”

“So I’ll never find her.”

“Well…no…I would guess that her animal friends were probably so very sad. They probably built her a marker or tomb or something…” the next memory in the docket suddenly caused a dramatic personality shift. “Yeah,” said Proctor_Dash. “At least, that’s what Daring Feats things- -and he is the great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great grandson of none other than the origional Daring Do!”

“I feel like hitting sompony with a grate,” said Five, taking a bite from the gelatinous substance she used as food.

“Does that taste good?”

“It doesn’t taste like anything. That’s the point.” She took another bite. “So you are saying there is some manner of monument? Perhaps a shrine, tomb, or mausoleum.”

“Yes,” said Proctor_Shy. “But it probably won’t be very old. I mean, Fluttershy really loved those adorable little creatures, and they loved her. There is a good chance they kept good care of her, even after her…end.”

“Great,” said Five, finishing her cube. “That means I’m required to interrogate a rabbit. Again.”

“Hey, everypony,” yawned Rainbow Dash, entering the room.

“Find me a location,” said Five, quickly. “Even a preliminary one- -just a point to start. And as we discussed prior.”

“Oky doki lokai.”

Proctor began looking through his information, forming the necessary correlations to predict a location. He knew what Five meant, of course- -he was not to tell Rainbow Dash about what they were doing, what they were planning, at least not until it was done. By definition, he loved Rainbow Dash; she was the best friend of five of his personalities, and they held great sway in his mind. The machine, of course, needed to be completed. Although it was unlikely that Five knew, Proctor had a vested interest in the activation of the Elements of Harmony.

Five crossed the room and took a seat at a table near where Rainbow Dash had entered.

“Do we have any more of that spaghetti?” asked Rainbow Dash, yawning.

“There was spaghetti?” said Gell, joining Five, her mouth full of green crackers. “Were there meatballs?” She looked arouond the room. “And hey- -where is that new guy you bought?”

“Oh,” said Rainbow Dash, sitting down at the bar near Proctor. “He’s up in my room. Still sleeping.”

“Ah,” said Pretty Lady, putting her drunk-sweeping broom against the wall. “Already pounding the new fluff, I see.”

“You what?!” cried Gell, spewing crumbs from her mouth and covering Five with them.

“N- -no! It isn’t like that!” sputtered Rainbow Dash, blushing heavily. “He snuck into my room at night- -I didn’t even want him there!”

“Okay,” said Gell, standing. “Now that’s just crossing the line. Against your will? I’ve never eaten an Exmoori before, but tonight, we feast on fluffy burgers!”

“I didn’t do anything with him!” cried Rainbow Dash.

“Yeah,” said Proctor_Dash. “I mean, it is a known fact that Rainbow Dash is totally a lespony!”

“I am not a lespony!” cried Rainbow Dash. “Why does everypony think I’m a lespony?!”

“Probably the rainbow mane,” said Five. “Also. Gell, please do not kill my soldier. He was difficult to acquire.”

Gell turned toward Rainbow Dash. “You promise nothing happened?”

“No! He just fell asleep on the floor! Like a big cat or something!”

“Interesting,” said Five. “So he made it through the hardest part.”

“Hardest…what?”

“He was at strong risk of spontaneous decay for the first twelve hours or so. If he lasted the first night, he is likely a reliable clone.”

“Wait- -so he could have died? Like, on my floor?”

“Yes. I did not tell you because I assumed it may disturb your sensibilities.”

“Five, come on- -that’s not something you keep secret!”

“Also,” said Five. “He’s not in your room anymore.”

“Then where is he?”

“Yeah,” said Gell. “I have some…talking to do.”

Five pointed to the kitchen door. A pair of blue eyes were peeking through the window. “Brown. Come out here.”

Brown obeyed. He pushed open the door and entered the room.

“Wow,” said Gell. “That is a fluffy pony.” Five was, as always, incapable of hearing Gell’s thoughts- -but she could tell that Gell was behaving with some level of trepidation; after all, she was the only one among them who had met a true, living Exmoori war god in her life.

Gell approached Brown, and Brown looked up at her. Five could feel a spike of fear in his mind, a sudden panic, far beyond what a pony would normally experience- -but it was rapidly surpassed. Brown stood his ground.

“I do not recognize what you are,” he said to Gell. “But if you are a threat to Rainbow Dash or the Commander, I will fight you.”

“Scary,” laughed Gell.

“Brown,” said Five. “This is my associate, Gell.”

“Associate?” said Gell. “I raised you, and all I get is ‘associate’?”

“You raised me very poorly,” said Five.

“Demons are not known for being motherly,” said Pretty Lady. “I’m going to go get that spaghetti. Gell, try not to get blood on the floor, I just de-bummed it.”

Brown cringed involuntarily, but still kept his eyes on Gell. “Demon…this word means nothing to me. What are you? Are you a pony?”

“And why should I tell you this?” said Gell, leaning closer to Brown and frowning deeply. “What gives you the right to demand answers from me?” She turned her head around, facing Five. “An? Will this thing bite me if I touch it?”

“Yes,” said Brown.

“Brown,” said Five. “Gell is my personal lieutenant. She outranks you.”

Brown looked surprisingly hurt, and embarrassed at his sudden realization of his own failure. “Yes Commander. My apologies, Commander. I was not aware of this fact.”

“Present yourself for inspection, soldier.”

“Yes, Commander.” Brown stiffened at attention.

“Um…An, what did you just do?”

“I believe I just told him to stay still. You may look him over.”

“Sure,” said Gell. She picked up Brown and turned him over in her hooves. “Satin’s ears this thing is weird,” she said. “Muscular, heavy. And,” she looked at Brown from the rear, closing one eye, “fully intact.” She raised one of her hoofs, preparing for the procedure.

“Gell,” said Five, disapprovingly.

“Come on, An. I’m not going to let an intact stallion just be around Rainbow Dash. What if he tries something?”

“Brown,” said Five, “what are your thoughts?”

“Thank you Commander,” said Brown, who was now partially inverted. “My opinion may be biased, but I would prefer not to lose my speciw wum- -to be gelded. Although it is within your right as Commander to modify my body as you see fit, I believe that being intact will improve my effectiveness as a soldier with respect to my primary mission of protecting Rainbow Dash.”

“He has a point,” said Five.

“Fine,” said Gell, dropping Brown onto the floor. “In my professional opinion, he is physically adequate for the task. Performance, though…I’ll be watching him.” She turned toward Brown, who was lying on his back, feet in the air. “Watching closely.”

“Right then,” said Five. “At ease, I suppose.”

“Thank you, Commander,” said Brown, un-stiffening and standing.

“You weren’t- -you weren’t actually going to geld him, were you?” said Rainbow Dash. “Not- -not for my sake…”

“Bluntforce has a castration fetish,” said Pretty Lady, coming through the kitchen door with several plates of food. Hoofteps from farther in the building indicated that her girls were starting to awake. She put one plate in front of Rainbow Dash. “She doesn’t joke about stuff like that. Kind of why I told you that story.”

“You told them our story?” said Gell, smiling. “Aww. You still remember.”

“Kind of hard to forget, isn’t it?”

“What’s a fetish?” asked Rainbow Dash.

“A bizarre and abhorrent sexual tendency,” said Five, “like how some ponies like hoofs.”

“Eew,” said Gell. “Don’t lump me in with those guys.”

“Got it!” said Proctor_Dash.

“What? A hoof fetish?”

“Hey- -I don’t know who programmed you,” said Rainbow Dash. “But I did not have a hoof fetish!”

“She sure protests a lot,” said Pretty Lady.

“Not that,” said Proctor_Dasy, “the location. I’ve got one.”

“Good,” said Five. She stood up. “Then we leave. Now.”

“Now?” said Rainbow Dash. She was only half way through her spaghetti. Five could actually smell it- -and she was already feeling sick.

“Yes, now. As in right now.”

“Yeah,” said Pretty Lady, “and the instant you set hoof out of the Lower Levels, they’re gonna be waiting for you. You know, the chiropterans are taking a ton of heat because of you- -more than normal, anyway.”

“Well pardon me if I feel absolutely no compassion for them.”

“You don’t feel compassion for anypony,” said Gell.

“And just how do you propose to even get out of the city?” asked Pretty Lady. “The trains are gonna be on lockdown- -”

“Then we take an airship. One of the real low-grade ones. Those companies care little who they carry. Once we are on, anyway.”

“But how are we going to get there?” asked Gell.

“Simple. Proctor?”

“Why yes, yes I am,” said Pinkie_Proctor.

“You have access to the reports, right? The ones which are used by mercenaries and authorities to track us?”

“I have lots of reports. Mostly from the health department. Did you know that this place got a ‘G’ on the last one? That’s two letters worse than an ‘F’- -”

“And how do they describe the suspects?”

“Anhelios Five,” began Twilight_Proctor, “Chiropteran (bat) pony: blue eyes, blue mane, female. Cutie mark a crystal. Bluntforce Gelding: demon, pink, yellow eyes, wears black armor, female. Cutie mark a hammer. Unidentified Pegasus mare: blue coat, violet eyes, notable for rainbow mane and cybernetic limbs on left side. Cutie mark is a cloud with rainbow lightning bolt. Unidentified equidroid. Model unknown….oh, I see.”

“See what?” said Rainbow Dash. “What am I supposed to be seeing?”

“Not what you are seeing,” said Five. Her eyes shifted toward Brown, who was still standing quietly, watching the conversation unfold. His eye had been shifting to whichever pony had been speaking- -but now they focused on Five, realizing that she was watching him. “But what you are not.”

Chapter 40: Corrective Measures

View Online

The remains of the pony in the glass-like tube were nearly still, moving only as occasional aeration bubbles passed through the viscous fluid. The figure itself was narrow and thin, its face sunken and corpselike. Even its wings were so thin that Thebe could see the blood pumping through their vasculature.

No pony in Equestria would have recognized this creature, though. Even if it had been complete- -if all the limbs had been attached, or the torso were the proper size and filled with organs, it would look unlike anything they had ever seen. Its tiny eyes, extended face, or the strange gate it would have had when it walked with- -and especially the flightless, bone-plate wings. None of them would have known that these ponies were once one of the dominant races of Equestria.

They were, of course, not alive, or not completely. They could not survive without the tubes and wires that connected to them, keeping the cells of their bodies marginally functional and dormant. Thebe had been perfecting the cloning process for decades, but her source material was simply too degraded. Much of it came from fossilized remains, or from the radiation-washed bones pulled from the Gloame. Celestia had indeed been thorough in their extermination.

The burrowing Pegasi, though, were only one of the two species that Celestia had deigned to remove from existence. Thebe had entirely given up on the other race long ago, however. With the Exmoori, she had viable genetic material, and the clones had formed well under the guidance of her magic. They had been perfect replicas of what had once been- -at first. They would always appear normal early on, but they would inevitably decline. Without fail, every Exmoori clone would collapse into homicidal rage. Their militaristic tendencies were pre-programmed into their very genetics; the clones would kill everything and everypony that came near them, including each other, until Thebe was forced to put them down. She had attempted the process hundreds of times, and every batch had failed. She had eventually given up her genetic samples to various private laboratories, but all they had produced were in-vitro genetic implantations, or at most deformed mutants.

The burrowing Pegasus squirmed slightly, and opened its eyes. One of its eyes was blind, but the other stared blankly. Its face shifted, as if it were trying to form facial expressions. They were, on some level, conscious- -even though their brains were ill-formed. They would wake up sometimes, and sometimes they would start screaming. Thebe hated the screaming ones, and always made a point to dispose of them properly.

She floated backward and looked up at the racks of hundreds of failed clones. She knew that there was really no point in keeping them, but something within herself prevented her from throwing them away. In her youth, she had been obsessed with restoring the lost two races. She was not sure why she had started, but the idea still held some romanticism within it. The idea that she, Thebe, could recreate what Celestia had destroyed, and undo the lesser alicorn’s greatest legacy.

Now, though, they would serve as a fitting audience. Irony, it seemed, liked to follow Thebe. She knew what needed to be done, and why. The incomplete, decaying clones seemed to understand too, and watched her knowingly.

“Well,” said Thebe, addressing her silent children. The only children she would ever be able to have. “I suppose I will be able to outdo Celestia after all.”

She hesitated for just a moment. Something within her felt strange, a like a memory from a time long passed, perhaps even a memory from before she had seen the truth of her existence. It hurt.

So she ignored it. Thebe activated the spell.

In the city of Baltimare, the city lights had just activated hours earlier, flooding the city with bright white light from the dome above. Ponies had already gone to work at their various jobs, but many were still walking through the streets, talking or purchasing groceries or supplies at the various stores, many of them altered in the last urban renewal cycle to resemble quaint and colorful structures.

Unlike many other cities, Baltimare had never grown into a full Megatropolis. In the past, it had been plagued with exceedingly high crime rates as well as racial tension, both of which had been spawned by the race-riots of the Second Choggoth War. For nearly a century, the city had been regarded as a dangerous wasteland of decaying buildings, drug addiction, and illegal firearms.

That era had long-since passed. It had now grown into a substantial city with a rich history, known for its peace and prosperity, as well as numerous medical centers that had grown up beneath the city’s famous lit dome. When ponies suffered from rare diseases or injuries that could not be healed elsewhere, they went to Baltimare for treatment.

Many of the pony residents worked in the hospitals. All of them were aware of the current outbreak. All across Equestria, ponies were falling ill with a mysterious disease. Their own hospitals had been packed with the infected who had been shipped in from all over Equestria. The disease had initially proven impossible to treat, let alone contain, but it the spread seemed to have slowed, which was fortunate. The Mayoral Council of Megatropolis 616 had just issued orders refusing entry of infirm from outer cities, so many new patients had been redirected to Baltimare. The hospitals were nearing capacity, and the work was grueling- -but the ponies of Baltimare were known for their caring, and their generosity. They would turn away no sick pony, and would deny none treatment.

Outside the hospitals, though, life continued as it always did. In no place was this more apparent than in Golem Park. The park sat in roughly the center of the city, a patch of grass and trees amongst the towers and brownstones of the city. The park itself had once simply been an undeveloped area known as a dumping ground, but through the hard work of all the ponies of the city, had become a thriving and beautiful sanctuary.

The park got its name from the titanic golem that stood in its center, looming hundreds of feet over the park. It had never moved since it had been placed there- -or, according to legend, walked there- -and it was largely overgrown with colorful flowering vines and turf that had taken hold upon its shoulders and head.

The fields beneath it were dotted with happy, smiling ponies. Among them were doctors on break, looking overworked but happy to be outside, as well as mothers with their foals. Fillys and colts ran through the fields, playing at the base of the golem. A young couple on a picnic giggled with each other in its shadow.

One particular filly was playing with a frisby. She ran toward the golem and caught it in her teeth, then threw it back to her laughing friends. She wished that she could have caught it with her magic, but her horn was still too small and stubby to use magic properly. Even though she practiced every night, her magic could still barely produce sparks, let alone perform a levitation spell.

As she began to move out of the golem’s shadow, she suddenly stopped. Most of her friends kept on playing- -except for the other one among them who was a unicorn. The filly looked around, and saw that all the unicorns seemed to have noticed the same feeling. One of the doctors had looked up from his coffee; the young mare on the picnic blanket had stopped kissing her coltfriend; a performer over by the tree line had stopped his juggling.

Then the ground began to shake. The filly was overcome with a powerful instinct to run, and she did. As she moved, she looked behind her- -and to her amazement, saw the six eyes of the golem aflame with scarlet magic. Then the it moved. She had thought that the stories were just make-believe, that the golem was really just a weird statue- -but it actually moved.

She stopped running, and watched as it stood, tearing the flowering vines that connected to its body out of the ground and stretching its arms. Then it took a step forward onto the ground, its clawed hoof nearly crushing the ponies below it.

The golem looked down at them all, as if were considering the world it had just awoken into. The ponies below- -though afraid- -did not know what to make of it. They had grown up around it, as had their parents, grandparents, and countless generations before them. The golem had watched the city grow around it, and never once moved- -they just could not bring themselves to be afraid of it.

Then it spoke. Its voice was booming and deep, but the filly had a strange sense that it was female.

“Engaging purge,” it said.

The last thing the filly ever saw was an eruption of red light from within the golem. Then, in an instant, she, along with the rest of the city, was reduced to dust.

In a site in the distant forest, the Grand Magus cried out.

“Grand Magus!” cried one of the dragon soldiers near him, a brown and gray male by the name of Smokebom. “Are you alright!”

“Did you feel that?” demanded Spike. The pain was not nearly as great as that which Goldmist’s eye had been producing as of late, but it was shocking none the less. “Did you feel that magic surge?”

“I felt something,” said a young female dragon. “But…what was it? An explosion?”

“Stay here,” said the Grand Magus. He spread his wings and spoke in fire, coating them in flame. With the spell in place, he rocketed upward into the high atmosphere, passing through the thick, white-sparking Order clouds that were permeating the area. He had defiantly felt an explosion- -and one from a familiar magic. Except that the location was wrong. He could not determine where it had come from.

Then he crested the top of the clouds, and understood. In the distance, he saw the columns of red light extending into the sky. There had not been one explosion, but many- -perhaps hundreds.

“No,” he said, unable to stop the tears. “Thebe…how could you? How could you have gone this far?”

In a decaying tower in a long-dead city, Toxic Shock suddenly felt a strange vibration running through his horn. His radio transmitter clicked loudly, and for a moment he thought that he was being contacted. Then his mind connected the combination of sounds and the sensation in his horn. He immediately raced to his computer and shoved the pieces back into place. He rammed the power supply cord into his body’s port- -and found that he was shaking. Even in a robotic body, he was shaking.

He activated the computer, and saw that his instincts had been correct. While waiting for a reply transmission, he had been watching the progress of cities that had taken the sick. For a time, he had been hopeful; although there had been no news of a cure, the spread had slowed and stopped. Now that hope was shattered. Every jurisdiction that had taken the infected was now nonresponsive.

“You idiots!” he said, slamming his metal hoof on the rusted desk. “If you had listened! If you had just listened!”

Toxic Shock recognized a purge when he saw one. He knew now the extent of his failure; that if he had just tried a little harder, if he had not let the quarantine break, this would not have happened. The weight of all the ponies that must have been culled now rested squarely on his shoulders.

Deep within the Eternal Forest, Lady Vale walked through the streets of one of the cities that surrounded her capital. She smiled and waved to the subjects below, who she was visiting. Their buildings were tiny, barely to her knees, carved from wood taken from the trees or built with tiny bricks. This city, of course, like so many of those that existed within her deepest sanctum, was populated by breezies.

The street that had been constructed through the center of the town was disproportionally wide for its buildings, but only because it had been built for her, as a path for her to walk through, to get meet the numerous breezie residents that dwelt within, who now came to their windows to see their Queen pass amongst them.

Ahead of her marched her husband, wearing a hat and twirling a baton to music that only he seemed to be able to hear as though the procession were a parade.

“Hello there,” said Vale, kneeling down near a small group of breezie children gathered at her feet. They at first seemed frightened of her blood-red eyes, but then they stepped forward cautiously. “Yes. Yes of course. There is no need for you to worry. The gohh are our friends now.”

Suddenly, there was a sound of breezies crying out, and a baton clattering against the ground. Vale looked to see that Discord had dropped it; fortunately, the breezies it had nearly landed on had moved out of the way.

“Discord?” said Vale, disapprovingly. “Now, I know you didn’t mean it, but you really should be more careful- -”

He turned, and she saw the uncharacteristic seriousness on his face.

“Hass,” he said, and space distorted. His rival appeared floating over the city like a dark cloud, its robes drifting beneath it in wind that nopony could feel. “You felt that, right? Please tell me you didn’t feel that.”

The yellow-clad being said nothing.

“On second thought,” said Discord, “don’t tell me anything. Because you can’t talk. Because I’m pretty sure you don’t have a mouth. And we all know how pretty I am when I’m sure…no. Not time for jokes. Find Snake. He’s probably in some tall grass or lurking in the background somewhere.”

“Discord,” said Vale, herself becoming serious. “What has happened?”

“Well…let’s just say we’re not going to have to send out nearly as many Hearthwarming’s Eve cards this year.”

In the city of Baltimare, several objects that had failed to be properly vaporized fell to the ground, landing in the wreckage below. Then they stood. The surge of magic had been unexpected, but useful. They had fed on it, converting it, using it to accelerate their pupation. Many had not been far enough in the healing process to withstand the process, and had exploded violently. Those that were near enough to their true and correct form, however, were able to survive.

Now each of them reached out into the wreckage, and into the supply of mass that their siblings had supplied for them. Each built a shell around themselves, and each turned toward the direction where the first of them was calling.

One, however, lifted its arm and pointed a finger at the golem that stared down at them. Before the golem could react, its source code was coopted. The fundamental control system was rewritten, and its six eyes shifted from red to pink and finally to white.

All across Equestria, the same was occurring. Many were understanding the true nature of their beings, of what it meant to be superior in every way to every other being. They were waking up. The time had come to begin construction.

Chapter 41: The City, the Basement, and the Bathroom

View Online

A bird sat upon Brown’s head. Although he had no concept of a phoenix, he understood that this bird belonged to the Commander. He therefore assessed it as a kind of weapon, like a trained hawk. It also rapidly became clear to him that the bird was rather warm, which was actually somewhat comfortable on his head.

“Doesn’t that…you know, hurt?” said Twilight_Proctor, who was walking through the street beside Brown.

“No. I believe that my fur is largely fireproof.”

“Really? That must be nice.”

“I would not know.” Brown paused, looking over to the machine that walked beside him. “What exactly are you?” he asked. “You resemble a pony, but I know not what you truly are.”

“I am Proctor.”

“Not your name. Your definition. Or shall I just call you a metal-pony?”

“Well, thahs about right, sugarcube. Not much beyond that.”

Although that was true, Brown felt dissatisfied with the response. He doubted he would be able to articulate his true question. He understood what equidroids were, because the Commander had taught him that. What he did not understand was what exactly Proctor was. He seemed to serve the Commander, but not for any particular reason- -and seemed to perpetually hide behind the personalities that seemed intrinsic to his being.

“Well, then, Proctor,” said Brown, dropping the subject for the time being. He looked around at the crowded city streets, and up at the towering buildings above him that made him dizzy. “Tell me: I understand why I am out of doors for this mission- -but why not you?”

“Because I was the one that broke the city?” said Pinkie_Proctor.

“I was not aware that was you, but yes.”

“Silly, that’s not actually a crime! Just petty vandalism. They’re not after me. Or the others. Well, they are after the others, but mostly just Rainbow Dash!”

“Rainbow Dash?” said Brown, suddenly feeling concerned. “Why her?”

“Oh,” said Proctor_Shy, “oh, well….because. But Five and Gell are just sort of incidental.”

“That,” said Twilight_Proctor, “and I’m an equidroid. We are generally considered to all look the same. And they’re not looking at all for…whatever you are.”

“Exmoori,” said Brown, annoyed. “I am Exmoori. As in, from Exmoor. We are…” He paused, finding that he did not know. He knew the name, but he did not know what it meant, what they were or had been. Abstract words filled the void in his mind: “freedom”, “independence”, “honor”, “warrior”, but he did not know why they were there, or what they were supposed to mean beyond their simple definitions. Although he tried, he found that he had no memories of Exmoor or his people.

“Chill,” said Proctor_Dash. The pair of them stepped onto a large square plate on which many ponies were standing, waiting. Brown’s eyes passed over each one of them, automatically determining their level of threat. Most of them were earth ponies, unicorns, or Pegasi, although there were a great many others of various species. Looking at the ponies caused Brown to feel agitated. He had a strong urge to attack them, but he was not sure why. The Commander’s orders were absolute, though. He was to carry the wheel of gateways to the airship, to allow the Commander, her associate, and Rainbow Dash to escape. Attacking his enemies now would be counterproductive toward that end.

Almost as soon as they boarded, the gates to the contraption closed. There was a tone, and the plate began to rise. Brown immediately dropped to the floor, clinging to it.

“Whoa,” said Proctor_Dash. “It’s just a level elevator. Public transit. No need to wig out on me.”

“I- -I was just not expecting it,” said Brown, standing. “Much of this world is new to me. Actually, rather, all of it is new to me.”

“I understand,” said Proctor_Shy. “This whole big world. You must be terrified.”

“Hardly,” said Brown, watching the city sink below him. He did not like being high of the ground, and the plate-elevator had risen hundreds of feet in a matter of seconds, the engine connecting it to the mechanical lift tower behind it clinking away. “I just really would rather have taken the stares.”

“It would be good exercise, I suppose, but so sweaty,” said Proctor_Rarity. “Although…then again, I suppose I can’t ever get tired. Or sweat. Well…yay for me, I guess.”

“Do you always speak with so many voices?”

“Of course, darling. Since I lack the mental framework to form a real intelligence, I get to have all these amazing personalities.”

“So your mind consists of six?”

“Indeed!”

“What a tortured existence that must be.”

Proctor almost spoke, but then paused. His unclosing blue marble eyes looked down at Brown. “Yeah,” said Proctor_Jack. “Ah guess it is.”

“At least you are not alone, though.”

“True. So true.”

The airship docks sat at the top of the dome, independent from the tall dangling towers where the wealthy resided. They were the size of small villages, crowded with systems to load air-transport freight, as well hordes of ponies. The docking tower that Brown and Proctor had gone to was filled mostly with poorer looking ponies, standing with their children and their luggage, waiting for the possibility of a ticket on one of the cargo vessels departing from the freight spire.

“I really would have liked to see the Dome District,” said Proctor_Rarity, holding his hoof near a battered vending machine. A light activated within, and the internal mechanisms clanked. A bottle dropped out. “I hear that the architecture is simply divine…and the culture!” he picked up the bottle in his false-light construct and passed it to Brown.

“I highly doubt that the guards will let us out,” said Brown, eying the bottle. “What is this?”

“Milk,” said Proctor_Rarity. “Although clearly not the highest quality. But it will do. Five tells me you have an…intolerance, I suppose, for solid food.”

“Great thanks, comrade,” said Brown, biting off the cap of the bottle and downing the contents rapidly. It was sour and chunky, but he was terribly hungry. “Hmm,” he said, grimacing slightly. “What manner of milk is this?”

“Hole milk,” said Pinkie Proctor. “Which means that it came from underground.”

“Really?”

“Yup. From a burro.”

“Ah,” said Brown, putting the bottle in an overfilled recycling can and starting up the staircase toward where the machines were loading crates and shipping containers onto their chosen airship. The vehicle itself was not entirely visible; the main body of it was outside, leaving only the docking door attached to the bay for loading. Still, even from that, Brown got the impression that it was hardly airworthy. Worse, the cargo was not labeled properly. The shipping containers were marked with an icon that said “Esperia Canned Fish”, but they did not smell like fish at all. They smelled like cordite and electronics.

“Well, this went oddly well,” said Proctor_Dash. “Easy as…”

“Hey you!” called a gruff voice from behind them.

“Pie...”

A black-clad earth pony guard was approaching them from the bottom of the stares. His plastic-like armor and visor obscured his identity, mostly, but Brown could tell from his markings that he was from the same contingent as the ones that guarded gates to the docking spire, protecting the picturesque hanging homes and gardens beyond from contamination of the rabble within.

“Yes, officer?” said Proctor_Rarity, sounding disturbingly flirtatious. “Is there a problem?”

“Yeah. The problem is that this vessels if for approved cargo only- -not you two. Get back down there!” He pointed down the stairs, toward the milling crowd below.

“I believe we have tickets,” said Proctor_Shy, cowering behind Brown.

“Tickets? On this ship? Yeah right. And what the hay are you supposed to be?” He turned toward Brown. “And is that a…phoenix?” His visor lit from within, momentarally illuminating his eyes. Then it suddenly sparked and went out.

“What the!” he cried, tearing it off.

“Must have been ah powehr surge,” said Proctor_Jack, his smile implicit. “It happens sometimes to low quality equipment.”

“You little buck, you hacked me!” the earth pony pulled a weapon from his holster; not a gun, but a long black nightstick. “I’m going to bash your eyes out!”

“Too slow!” said Procor_Dash, dodging. The blow meant for him instead hit Brown. The nightstick struck his fluff with an audible “pomf”, but neither Brown’s position nor his expression changed.

The guard tried to pull our his nightstick, but found that it was stuck. Then, to his horror, it was pulled away from him and into the mass of brown fluff that covered the strange pony before him, vanishing within seconds.

“That was kind of weird,” said Proctor_Dash. “But come on! Fight back! Aren’t you supposed to be some kind of supresoldier?”

“I have no quarrel with this stallion.”

“He just hit you!”

“Yes. I am aware of that. It does not especially bother me.”

Proctor_Dash sighed. “Oh well. Guess I have to miss out on a good fight for now.” He turned his attention toward the guard, still staring stupidly at the spot on Brown’s fluff where his nightstick had been effortlessly absorbed. “Oh, and also, just so you know, I’m the one who blew up the city!”

The guard still continued to stare, but then jumped back. “Calling all guards!” he cried into his transmitter. “Two suspects, dock 7A! Resisting arrest! Armed and dangerous, shoot to kill!”

The crowd below suddenly started to panic as guards flowed in from all sides, pushing and beating ponies out of their way.

“It almost seems like you want to use it,” said Brown, still expressionless. He had now concluded that he did not much like Proctor, but that the two were good allies.

“Of course I do,” said Proctor_Dash, reaching into Brown’s fluff. He fished around for a moment, and then drew out a grenade launcher. The earth pony guard’s eyes widened, and he jumped back.

“Masks on,” said Proctor_Dash, and Brown pulled a gas mask from his hair and placed it over his face. Proctor_Dash produced a pair of wings and floated into air above the crowd. He then took aim with the launcher, and fired several shells into the wall of guards that were coming after them.

The shells burst open into a cloud of pink gas, and the guards immediately started choking on it. Proctor_Dash descended from the air, just in time for Brown to kick the one guard already on the stares back down into the growing cloud of smoke.

“What was that?” asked Brown. “A chemical weapon?”

“Yes,” said Twilight_Proctor. “Colloidal love potion. It should keep them distracted for a while.” He released a sound that might have been laughter. “Leave it to Anhelios Five to weaponized a love potion.”

Brown looked out into the pink fog-shrouded crowd, and grimaced slightly at what was starting to occur. “I believe she may have made the potion too strongly.”

“Well, I may have added a bit of estrus pheromone…well, they say 616’s population is in decline right now, so I suppose I’m doing them a public service.”

“Where did you even get estrus pheromone?”

“Yah don’t want tah know,” said Proctor_Jack. “Shall we go, now, then?” added Proctor_Rarity, sounding somewhat unnerved. “This really isn’t the place for a Lady right now.”

“Um…sure,” said Brown, turning away from the spectacle that was unfolding below him. For some reason, although he did not want to, he found himself liking Proctor more than he had before. “Yes. I believe that course of action would be ideal.”

Deep within the Pocket, Five pulled a piece of sheet metal from the stack. She adjusted her gauntlet, producing a plasma torch, and began cutting yet another piece for yet another tiny part. She was working quickly, in part because she had little time, and in part because that was how she worked best, when her mind was focused entirly on the task at hand.

That, and she despised her basement. It was dark, dreary, and perpetually moist. That was itself not a problem; she was a chiropteran, after all. The problem was the way the basement was constructed. Although it existed within the Pocket, it was not part of the main structure. It sat spate from the rest, floating freely in the void. Behind every wall was nothingness with neither time nor space, and the basement roared with deafening silence from the endless storms outside.

It had its advantages, of course. The main one at this point in time was the fact that Rainbow Dash could not access it, let alone find it. She could not know what was being constructed there.

Five placed the still red-hot piece of metal where it belonged, and immediately shifted tasks. She picked up one of the two skulls she had already acquired- -the one belonging to Applejack- -and inserted it into its setting, an action which felt not unlike putting an immense gemstone into an immense ring. Assuming, of course, that the ring consisted of a system of wires and conduits that flowed down the metal holder and onto the floor, snaking into the remainder of the incomplete systems.

“Honesty, laughter, loyalty,” she said, counting down the ones she already possessed as she tightened the clamps over Applejack’s tumor-deformed skull, and then the ones she did not yet have “Kindness, generosity, magic.”

Each one was an Element of Harmony- -and a grand weakness. Honesty: to cast away the ability to manipulate others. Laughter: to deny the truth, that the world was pain. Loyalty: to follow kings and gods blindly until death. Kindness: to open oneself to betrayal. Generosity: to sap one’s own strength to feed one’s enemies. Then, finally, magic- -the curse that had dogged Five for her entire existence. These things should have had no power, and yet, somehow, they did. A power that she needed.

From behind her, she felt space distort. From the corner of her eye, she saw the illumination of a pentagram across the oil-stained floor. With a puff of ionization, Gell appeared. The basement, of course, was not safe from Gell. Gell was free to go wherever she pleased. Five had tried to forbid her several times, and it had never worked.

“I thought I could find you down here,” said Gell.

“We are neither up nor down,” said Five, absentmindedly, while she forced Pinkie Pie’s skull into place. The gaping hole in its side as well as the mounting hardware from where it had been attached to its final resting place- -the Pie family’s ancestral hat rack- -made it fit into the setting wrong. Five swore in Draconian, and then went to work on something easier to fix. “We are not above or below the Pocket proper. Nor are we within it. Nor are we without it.”

“Come on, An. Don’t lecture me on portal magic. It’s kind of my thing.”

“Indeed. Can you bring in the processing array from the master bath?”

“Sure,” said Gell. “Never liked it in there anyway. Always seemed to be watching me.” A portal appeared on ground, and Gell pulled the device through.

“You do not urinate. Or defecate.”

“That’s not what I use the bathroom for.”

“Then what do you- -eew. Never mind.”

“This thing is a mess,” said Gell, referencing to the basement in its entirety rather than just the processing tower, and the largely incomplete machine on the ground. “Is this thing really going to work?”

“Yes,” said Five. “Of course it will. Probably.”

“You know, you’ve spent longer making this…thing…than Rainbow Dash has even been alive.”

“Your point? Or did you just come here to bother me?”

“An…I heard what you were talking about with the robot. You’re not going to be able to get Twilight Sparkle.”

“I can.”

“No. You can’t. Thebe has the skull. Or probably does.” Gell pointed to the ceiling, as if Thebe were somehow above them. “I can’t fight Thebe. You can’t fight Thebe. There, you might even have better luck against Satin himself!”

“I don’t necessarily need her,” said Five. “Not…not necessarily. I have been reading Proctor’s manual. I think he is close enough that a substitution may be possible.”

“A…a substitution? For the most important Element?”

“Twilight is actually the least important,” said Five. “She was just a catalyst. If Proctor’s Twilight simulation were embedded in an adequate host, it might be possible to replicate the Element of Magic.”

“And where are we going to get that? Or are you volunteering?”

“So what if I am?”

Gell laughed, momentarily revealing the immense cruelty that was her birthright. “You? You? You barely have enough magic to repair a broken teacup! I’m not trying to be mean- -but you are the weakest of your family. By far. And you don’t even bother to learn Two’s spells, either. All you’ve really got is that healing thing.”

“She doesn’t know you very well, does she?” said a third voice in the room. Five’s eyes darted rapidly to the shadows, to where they were especially deep. There, she saw a pair of green-blue eyes staring out of the darkness toward her. “How long you have lived with her- -and how you continue to keep her in darkness of your intentions. She doesn’t know you like I know you, Anhelios Five.”

“Not my name,” muttered Five, picking up a hastily constructed harness she had built from one of the incomplete skull-holders, a harness designed to go around a pony’s head. She dug a probe into the mechanism in the back and caused the needle to deploy out the back of the helmet portion. Five recalled what she could from anatomy, and tried to assess whether the needle would go too deep into a pony’s brainstem. She decided to err on the side of caution, and turned the adjustment screw to reduce the penetration depth.

“What?” said Gell.

“Never mind,” said Five. Gell could neither see nor hear the specter that wandered through Five’s peripheral vision- -nopony could, save for her.

“Hmm,” said the shadow, approaching the skull of Applejack and running one of her nebulous hooves over it. “Applejack. Of all of them, she was my favorite. Perhaps my only friend of the six. I almost feel sad for her, seeing her like this. As a component in a weapon.”

“The Elements of Harmony are inherently a weapon,” said Five. “They were never used to fix anything- -just to crush deviants.”

“Uh, I know that,” said Gell. “It’s like, one of your top fifteen extended rants. But you know, I have a responsibility to tell you that you’re pretty much wasting your life down here. On this- -thing.”

“I have no life to waste. I was born dead.”

“Aren’t we all,” said the shadow, smiling.

“Although some of us are immortal,” snapped Five.

“I know that too,” said Gell. “But you’re not. You don’t age, but you will die. Do you really want this to be your legacy?”

“When have I ever been concerned with such foolishness? Or would you rather have me as a wandering, self-proclaimed ‘hero’, a guardian of Equestria?”

“An, come on,” said Gell, approaching where Five was standing. “I’m not saying that, but…” she paused, and sniffed the air. Five suddenly felt cold, and the shadow smiled, amused.

“What is that?” said Gell, leaning near Five and sniffing.

“Get away from me,” said Five, pushing her away.

“I know that smell,” said Gell, angrily. “Misoprostol? Foal-Be-Gone? I would know that smell anywhere. An, are you pregnant?”

“No,” said Five. “No, not yet. Right now it is purely prophylactic. But I can feel it, Gell. I can feel her, coming to kill me. I could have years- -or I could have months. I’m dying.”

“Prophylactic?! You reek! What are you taking? Ten times the normal dose?”

“As much as it takes.”

“It won’t work, you know,” said Gell.

“And how would you know?”

Gell’s eyes narrowed, and she stared directly into Five’s eyes. “Because your mother tried the same thing.”

“She did,” said the shadow. “I was there.”

“Is that supposed to shock me?” said Five, throwing down the harness meant to penetrate Rainbow Dash’s skull. “Is it, Gell? Because I can remember the moment she made the decision. I recall her taking the first pill. I recall how sick it made her, and how you ignored it. I have three hundred twenty one years of Anhelios in my head! I can’t make it go away, I can’t stop remembering- -I can’t even remember which one is me anymore.” She turned back to her work, phasing through the shadow on her way to Pinkie Pie’s skull. It felt terribly cold and slightly damp. “I don’t care. I don’t care anymore. I can’t stop Six, but I can slow her down. Gell, I just need more time. Just a little more.”

Gell sighed. “Fine. Go ahead. Just wear some perfume or something. I hate that smell.”

The portal opened once again, and Gell disappeared back into the main Pocket, probably to continue gorging herself on pony meat or sleeping in her bed of broken glass. Five was left alone with her other half, the pair of eyes floating in the darkness, connected to a body that was purely conceptual.

“And you? You’re going to disparage my life choices as well?”

“Oh, no,” said the shadow. “I actually find this rather amusing. In a way, I missed this type of drama when I was Luna. But, just so we are clear: I have a vested interest in continuing my existence. I will ensure that Six is born, and that you do not die before then.”

“So I am just a breeder to you? To ensure the next generation?”

“No, Anhelios. Of course not. I love you, as I have loved all my children. In a way, I wish that you were like Luna- -that I at least had hope that you might stay with me for all eternity. If only that were your goal, though.” She smiled. “But she does not know you as I know you- -because I am you. Your darkness, your truth. I know that death has never really concerned you.”

“No,” said Five, herself smiling. “No it hasn’t.”

Rainbow Dash flushed the toilet, and wondered where the water went. She hoped that Five did not recycle it into drinking water, because that would be gross. Or even shower water. Or any kind of water. Knowing Five, though, Rainbow Dash decided that recycling of the toilet water was probably the case.

Toilets were annoying. That was one of the great things about being a Pegasus- -she never had to use them under normal circumstances. When flying, she could just go whenever she wanted to. The Wonderbolts had several euphemisms for it, depending on the circumstances: “lightening the load”, “dropping the bomb”, or “fertilizing the fields”. It was one of the main reasons why Cloudsdale was normally parked over the ocean.

Rainbow Dash looked into the bathtub. It was filled with ice, but the strange machine that had been lying there a moment ago had seemingly vanished, leaving behind only an impression in the quickly melting cubs. Rainbow Dash momentarily looked around the small room, wondering if it might have somehow tried to escape. Machines did not usually do that in her time, she knew, but with what Five had lying around, it was impossible to know what might happen.

Finding the machine nowhere, she instead stepped over to the mirror. She had ignored it as she came in, but she had a sudden urge to look at her awesomeness. When she actually took a moment to look within, though, she gasped and jumped back. She found her heart was beating rapidly, and she slowly moved her face back into frame.

Something was extremely wrong with her right eye. Her left one was fine, with its purple iris staring back at her- -but the other was discolored and strange. Her pupil- -which should have been black and shiny- -was now almost entirely golden. She twisted her head, and saw that the gold seemed to line the back of her eye, or the fluid within, filling it with sparkling yellow. Her iris in that eye, likewise, was starting to be overgrown with gold as well, being replaced by it in some parts. The result was a reddening of the rest of her eye. Looking at it made Rainbow Dash’s eye feel itchy, and it frightened her.

It was, she realized, similar to the new feathers that had sprouted from her wings. She unfolded her wings and looked down at them. They were long and stiff, and definitely made of some kind of golden metal. They were strange looking, though; they were not simply feathers, but rather metal plates that looked as though they had been sculpted to look like some kind of abstract representation of feathers. Rainbow Dash recalled one of Rarity’s phases, something called “Art Deco”, which Rainbow Dash had always thought had something to do with stickers.

They were also incredibly sharp. Strangely, though, they never cut Rainbow Dash herself. They fit perfectly into her wings, like a perfect pair of wing-blades. Neither did they impair her ability to fly. They were just weird, and scary because she did not know why she had them.

Rainbow Dash leaned over the sink and looked at her eye again. It looked infected, but when she closed her good eye the bad one still saw perfectly well. She tried it several times, closing one eye and then the other, making the world blink a few degrees to the left and right as she did it.

Then something went wrong. When she closed her good eye, the image changed. She saw her reflection in the mirror- -but also saw another. Over her shoulder was another pony- -but not anypony she recognized.

Rainbow Dash spun around, internally panicking, although she knew horror movies well enough to know what would happen. She would turn around, gasping, perhaps call out “who’s there?”, but nopony would be there, and she would be left with a pounding chest and doubts about her sanity, which she already knew was in bad shape.

Expect the pony behind her did not go away. When she turned, she found her nose inches away from his. He was most certainly real.

Rainbow Dash now saw that he was not actually a pony. His body was not made of skin and hair, but rather angular golden metal formed into the shape of pony like some kind of semi-abstract sculpture. He towered over Rainbow Dash, standing as high as Celestia once had, but his body seemed so much larger, and somehow even more regal than the Princess of the Sun.

The golden pony looked down at Rainbow Dash, and she saw that he had only one eye. The eye he did have shifted in its socket, its delicate mechanical components focusing on her. This pony, Rainbow Dash realized, was a machine- -but not a machine in the same sense Proctor was. She did not know how, but this creature was far beyond anything that anypony could ever produce.

Her eyes instinctively darted toward the nearest area of escape- -but the pony extended his wings, blocking her in on both sides. Rainbow Dash felt distressed- -not because she was locked in place, but because she recognized those wings. The feathers they bore were larger versions of the ones that adorned her own wings.

“Listen to me,” he said, his voice sounding somewhat mechanical but his jaw moving just as a normal pony’s would have. “Listen, pony, and listen well. The Adamantasi are returning. I know not why. But do not approach them. Do not hear their call. And most importantly, whatever they are trying to do- -do not stop them. If you die, then I have failed.” Then, of all the things he could have done, he smiled. “I can see you,” he said, “through my own eye. You are a pretty one indeed, and nearly my equal. Nearly. You will make an excellent mother.”

Then he was gone. Rainbow Dash collapsed onto the floor, not knowing at all what had happened. For some reason, she suddenly burst out laughing. The whole situation just seemed so funny- -but she did not know why. She knew her mind was collapsing, and that she was hallucinating.

Even knowing this, she could not stop laughing. Not until her laughter collapsed into sobs as she rocked back and forth in the safety beneath the sink.

Chapter 42: And Once Again They Meet

View Online

The walls shook with a resounding explosion, and the gravity engines whined in protest against the sudden surge of kinetic energy in the outer hull. Futher explosions erupted as something burst through the nearly solid mass of the Pyramid, tearing through its structure with reckless abandon.

“THEBE!” called a voice, just barely audible through the structure.

Thebe sighed. She began moving the primary engines out of the way, clearing a path that would ensure that her rather rude intruder did not damage anything seriously. At the same time, she disconnected the leads into her spine and retracted the machine she had been working on, forcing it to be pulled back to where it would not be seen, or, more importantly, not be damaged.

She decreased the reinforcing spells on the walls, at least partially. Her guest likely barely noticed; the amount of energy he was expending on pounding through them was actually rather incredible- -if entirely pointless.

Then he finally burst through the final barrier, entering the room where Thebe was standing, waiting. The Grand Magus stepped through the hole he had knocked in her wall, his mouth dripping with liquid fire. He had discarded his robe before entering, and now appeared in Draconian battle armor- -an impressive sight, indeed, even if it was technically outside of traditional Draconian garment customs.

“Thebe!” he screamed, reaching for her. His claw cut through several of her shield spells- -again, something Thebe considered mildly impressive- -and he picked her up by the neck. “What have you done?!”

“I did not give you permission to touch me,” said Thebe, mildly annoyed. Fortunately, the suit prevented any actual contact between them. If Thebe actually made contact with another living being, she knew that she would be much less amenable to friendly conversation.

“Touch you? Touch you?!” His claw tightened, closing around her neck. “I should tear your head off! Do you have any idea what you- -”

“Yes, Grand Magus,” snapped Thebe. He was momentarily taken aback by her response. Even though he was crushing her, she still responded loudly and with confidence, speaking not through her long-inactive windpipe but through the magic that sustained her. “I know exactly what I did. You do to. You asked me to do it.”

“Asked you- -you just wiped out half the population of Equestria! When did I ever ask you to do that?!”

“The creature. You wanted help eliminating it. I recall this well. It reproduces through infection. I have eliminated all centers of infection. Or most of them, at least. Now they can no longer breed.”

“Breed- -they were breeding? There are more than one?”

“There are now hundreds. I think some died in the blast, but it proved far less effective than I had hoped. They are…durable.”

“But the other ponies! All those ponies! You killed them!”

“Spike,” said Thebe. “You of all being should know. They were already dead. From the moment they were born. Their lives are so short that they are trivial. Insignificant. Death now is no different from death in twenty, forty, two hundred years- -what could they even accomplish? I have destroyed nothing; only infinitesimally accelerated an unavoidable process.”

“Are you insane?!”

“No. My view of the world is correct, and logical. You are the one who just broke into my home and attempted to strangle me. And, in relation to that…”

She watched the Grand Magus’ eyes widen as he was suddenly forced backward away from her with tremendous force, thrown through the air by a burst of red magic. Behind him, Thebe reinforced one of the walls he was rapidly approaching and slammed him against it. She listened carefully, hoping to hear the sound of cracking bones and dislocating joints, but was disappointed to hear nothing more than a resounding thud and the sound of the air leaving his lungs. Draconians, it seemed, were more durable than she had expected.

The magic that had driven back the Grand Magus shifted, separating into a construct of a large mechanical claw. Its fingers spread out over him, pinning him to the wall, and divided to hold his arms, legs, and wings in place.

“What I am doing is right,” said Thebe, floating over, her robe extending and drifting behind her. “What I am doing is just. They are ponies- -they mean nothing to an alicorn.”

The Grand Magus did not bother resisting his bindings, although Thebe knew that with enough effort he could easily have shattered them. Instead, he looked into her eyes- -the blank, ever-staring sculpted eyes of her steel mask. “Is that really what you believe? Thebe, I know you. I have known you for a long time. Can you look at me and say, truly, that you will be able to live with yourself for this?”

“All I can do is live,” said Thebe. “It is all I have ever done. I am immortal. I cannot die.” She glared at him, feeling the hatred within herself growing. “And do not pretend to care about me, Grand Magus. It is growing…old.”

“Thebe,” said the Grand Magus. “I do care about you. I always have.”

“And yet you chose her instead of me,” she whispered, knowing fully well that the Grand Magus could hear her. “When I needed you- -you turned away from me. For a mortal.”

“Thebe,” said the Grand Magus, looking hurt. “I loved her- -”

“If anything,” said Thebe, trying to control the desperate homicidal rage that was welling within her. “You should be supporting my endeavor. I have no reason to hate ponies, but you do.”

“I can never hate them,” said the Grand Magus.

“Really? Reference the three before you, and what they did to your ‘beloved’ Rarity. The unfaithful husband who brought home the disease that rendered her sterile? He was a pony. The second husband, the one who beat her relentlessly? A pony. The third, who addicted her to enhancement metal in the name of ‘high-society’? A pony. How is it that you are foolish enough not to hate them?”

“And she was a pony. A pony that I loved, and will forever love. Even you were once a pony- -”

He gasped as Thebe closed her construct around him and forced him into the wall, crushing his armor around him.

“Do not compare me to them!” she cried. “They are nothing more than property! I own them- -I own all of them! If I desire to wipe them away from this world, it is my prerogative!”

The Grand Magus moved beneath the force of her magic. His right hand ignited with green fire, and he drove it forward, crushing through the red light, tearing apart the spell that held him in place. He was strong, far stronger than Thebe had expected.

With the spell compromised, the Grand Magus exploded into green flame, separating himself from Thebe and forcing her to float backward a distance.

“So that’s it?” he said, his mouth dripping flame. “You care that little for them? You don’t even remember, do you? When you had friends, what love even feels like.”

“I have never had friends. And I will never feel love. Only power, and the desire for more of it. This is the nature of the alicorn- -the nature that the other four refused to comprehend. That we can only be alone, because there is no equal. Not even you.”

“What is your intention, Thebe?” said the Grand Magus, stepping through her magic as though it were nothing.
“To correct my mistakes,” said Thebe. “A noble goal, I believe. My initial blow failed to exterminate my enemies- -so now I shall march across this land and purge the disease from within. Even if I have to eradicate every pony alive, I will succeed.”
“Am I going to have to fight you? To start a war between Draconia and Equestria?”

“War?” said Thebe, smiling beneath her mask. “Spike…you’ve already lost.”

“Really? Because right now, it looks like we’re pretty evenly matched.”

“Perhaps we are,” said Thebe. “Or, would be, if I were as limited by morality as you were.”

“What are you talking about?” said the Grand Magus, stopping his approach. His expression changed, just slightly, but enough to betray his emotions to Thebe.

“Vulcan Colony,” said Thebe. “Originally, it was an ancient mining outpost for the Aurasi, until Void and Nil rendered them extinct. Until Crimsonflame inherited it, and gave it to you when you inherited her title. How many dragons live there, I wonder?”

“Thebe…what are you implying?”

“That I ten orbital platforms loaded with Cerorian-type xenonuclear warheads pointed directly at it, ready to be fired at a moment’s notice.”

“You wouldn’t.”

“I just eradicated billions of my own subjects. What do twenty something Draconians mean to me?”

“Thebe, there are children there!”

“Children that will grow to hate me, to fight me, to be killed by me- -I am only saving them from that fate. Or would be. I suppose you have the true choice, here.”

The Grand Magus stared at her, glaring. “You…you are a monster, Thebe. I never wanted to admit it to myself…but I can see it now. Thebe…what happened to you?”

“Lower your shielding layers,” said Thebe. “I really would rather not waste my warheads today if I can avoid it.”

“Fine,” hissed the Grand Magus, and the cloak of fire surrounding him dropped.

“There we go. Nice and peaceful. Also.” She raised her hoof, and her magic condensed into a solid, forming a small memory chip. She levitated it to the Grand Magus, who took it from her.

“What is this?” he asked.

“My findings, so far, on what our mutual enemy is. You helped me. So now I have helped you. Fair is fair. Now…I suppose you will want to be investigating that pit it made when it took my legs. So…”

The space around the Grand Magus erupted into a bubble of red light, and he was instantly gone, teleported halfway across Equestria. Thebe watched him go, and then reinforced her external shields to ensure that he would not be able to enter her sanctum again.

There was still much work to be done. Eradicating the early infected would not be enough; Thebe needed a way to defeat the ones that already walked. She knew her limitations, though. She knew that alone, she was not strong enough. The only solution, therefore, was to increase her power.

She pulled the machine she had been building back into the room where she was working. A way to increase her power- -once again, irony had infiltrated her life. The Vandrare, by failing to kill her, had given her the means she needed to defeat them.

Thebe watched her reflection glinting off the slowly revolving item in the center of her device. The last relic or Order from a barely averted age, taken long ago from a forgotten kingdom. For the first time since King Sombra had ruled one and a half millennia before, it would finally be used for its true purpose.

Thebe smiled as the red light of her three horns glinted off the jewel-like facets of the still-living core of a long-deceased Lord of Order: the Crystal Heart itself. A weapon of unfathomable power; a device destined from its inception to stain the soil of Equestria red with pony blood- -a destiny that Thebe would ensure that it achieved.

Chapter 43: Construction Begins

View Online

Epicenter walked slowly across the surface of the water, the waves vanishing into pure calm at the force of her presence. Beneath her, she felt the presence of the cities of Beyond, now all abandoned. There was no point in bothering to descend below the surface; there was nothing to kill. Instead, she had simply trolled the resources from above, dredging up stones and monuments far larger than any Equestrian dwellings and tearing them apart, peeling away key components and allowing the chaff to descend back into the deep.

Then, finally, she set foot on land. She pulled herself onto the rocky shore, and through the strange forests of the remote atoll. From the smell in the air, she could tell that this was a land where no pony had set hoof in centuries, perhaps even in millennia. In fact, it was perfectly silent. No bird spoke, and no animal called. Only the gnarled, fungoid trees stood, their glossy and opalescent stems and trunks piercing the mist.

Epicenter was no alone, though. She could feel the other- -and feel her hatred and disgust welling within her. Without changing speed, she stepped through the forest, tearing a path through the trees as needed. Epicenter found that she did not like trees- -in fact, she rather hated them, but not these trees. These trees were small and inconsequential. She only hated one tree, but she could not remember anything more than a vast growth of white crystal looming hundreds of miles wide and thousands taller into the sky. She hated that tree, but she knew that it was dead. They had killed it. It had screamed. These trees did not scream. They died without a sound, or even a shudder. They were weak. As such, Epicenter could not hate them.

As she moved, the vestiges of the machines began to become apparent. Tentacle-like trunks of things that were not trees, made of dark-colored metal and luminescent white lights. She followed them, and followed the oppressive sensation of being near another of her kind.

Then she saw him. He was standing in the clearing, seeming to stare upward at the machine that was being constructed before him, at the writhing mass of engines and crystal that he was bringing into existence, pulling the mass of so many cities together to create the parts for their most sacred schematic.

He turned to her, his glowing eyes peering out of his extensive armor. She returned his gaze. Neither spoke, because neither needed to. Their minds were identical, and their goal the same.

Epicenter took her place beside him, and began unloading the mass she had collected. It printed above her, manipulated by her Order and her magic, assembling into combinations of machinery and crystal and flesh.

More would come. She had made sure that so many of them would be born into a world of truth and light. The creature- -the alicorn- -it had begun to try to fight them, but it was already too late. Enough had been created. They would march across this world, and gather the materials necessary. Others would come to join Epicenter and the original to build the machine. It was their goal, the one thing that united them all.

Even though, as Epicenter was distantly aware, not one of them knew what it was for.

Chapter 44: Rest Stop

View Online

The landing ramp descended, and Brown followed his beloved Commander down it. From the way she moved, he could tell that she was not a soldier, not in the traditional sense, anyway. She was not like he was. From the way she acted to the very way that she moved, it was clear that she was strong, trained from decades of conflict, forged into a pony that was more than worthy to give him commands- -but it was also clear that she herself received orders from nopony. She was not a child of a formal command structure, but a private entity. In Browns eyes, she was an artist of sorts, one dedicated toward battles that would further her own ends and nopony else’s- -and Brown was happy to serve her.

“Brown,” said Five, looking over her shoulder at him. “Why are you following me?”

“Is this not our destination?”

“No. The airship is refueling. I am amazed that such a derelict still stays in the air- -virtually hemorrhages fuel. Needless to say, I am also stealing some of the fuel. But that is beside the point. Go back inside.”

“But what if you require protection?”

Five’s eyes narrowed. “I did not create you to protect me. I do not require it. I created you for Rainbow Dash. Or was I mistaken in assuming that you would be an adequate guardian for her?”

“No, Commander,” said Brown, suppressing his tears. “No. I will follow my primary mission.”

“Good.” They had neared the terminal edge of the landing ramp, and Five stopped. She reached into her bag and removed a package. She tossed it to Brown. It landed in his fluff and adhered.

“What is this, Commander?” he asked, pulling something out of the plastic sleeves.

“One of the two foods I can eat: Blando Strange’s extra-dry oyster crackers.”

Brown removed one of the crackers from the package and took a bite of it. It tasted like nothing. It was not even salty.

“So very…bland,” he said. “I would rather have sketti.” He paused. “Sk- -et- -i.”

Five looked back at him, confused. “Are you trying to sound cute? Because you’re failing with great vigor.”

“No, Commander,” said Brown, standing at attention. “It appears that I have a genetic inability to pronounce ‘sketti’ properly.”

“Weird. Try not to say it around me, then, it’s annoying. Also: you can’t digest pasta. You are not yet weaned. Start with these, and water. And remember: if you do not eat properly, keeping you alive falls on me and it is rather draining.”

“Yes, Commander,” said Brown.

“Good. Now, go back to Ms. Dash. I have stuff to do.”

“Yes Com- -” Brown suddenly shuddered as he looked beyond the Commander into the land beyond. The corroding wooden deck and the dirty mostly cybernetic ponies at the station did not bother him. Instead, he fouond himself looking at the sliver of sky that he could see just over the Commander’s head.

“Brown,” said Five, not sounding especially concerned. “Are you damaged?”

Brown put his hoof to his head. He suddenly felt terribly dizzy, and had a splitting headache. The whole world seemed to be shifting, as if he had just seen the impossible and his mind could not correlate what he was seeing with reality.

“The sky,” he said. “Not- -not right. Red sphere, color of flame, and white sphere, together, never apart in the yellow sky- -where have they gone? What is wrong? Something is wrong- -”

“Red sphere and white sphere?” said Five. Then a look of understanding crossed her face, and she actually seemed somewhat amused. “Brown,” she said. “This is an order. Go back inside. Go be with Rainbow Dash.”

“Hi-o,” said Proctor, pushing past Five from outside, entering the ramp.

“Proctor?” said Five. “Where did you come from?”

“A factory, probably,” said Pinkie_Proctor. He switched to Proctor_Dash. “Had to fly ahead. I got Rainbow Dash a present. Come on, lord of the fluffy. You can watch too.”

“O- -okay,” said Brown. He looked back toward the Commander, and saw that she had vanished. He looked out carefully, trying to avoid looking at the sky- -but could not find her. “Yes,” he said to Proctor. “Let us return to Rainbow Dash.”

“Okie dokie lokai.

Five watched Brown staring at her, or more precisely, through her. His mind was unbelievably pliable. Proctor could still see her, of course- -she was not invisible; that was a talent reserved for only a truly select set of unicorns. Rather, she had simply reached into Brown’s mind and made him unable to perceive that she was standing directly before him.

She watched as he scanned the crowd as though she was not there, and then as he ascended the ramp back onto the rusted and vibration-prone airship with Proctor.

“You seem concerned,” said the shadow with blue-green eyes as it pulled a tendril of itself out of Brown’s head. “Of course, this thing is and Exmoori. I am sure you aware of the implications of that.”

“I am,” said Five, not entirely out loud.

“I don’t think you are,” said the shadow, following her at the edge of her consciousness, drifting alongside her. “Celestia went through a great deal of effort to exterminate them.”

“Celestia was a power-hungry tyrant,” noted Five indifferently.

“That is true,” said the shadow. “But this thing you have created- -this creature. I am impressed, but its mind is dangerously strained.”

“I know,” said Five, walking along the creaking platform amongst the unshaven stallions and the cyborgs. “But just then. What he referred to of the sky. What did he mean?”

“He described what he saw. Or would have seen. Or should have seen.”

“A red sphere and a white sphere?”

“The sun and the moon, over five millennia ago. Before Celestia separated them into night and day, and before her power forced the sun to burn yellow.”

“Five millennia?” said Five, impressed- -but also concerned. Although she had access to that memory, she had not given it to Brown. In fact, she had given him almost nothing, aside from the most basic context within the world. Things that she thought he might need, like the races of ponies, the types of technology he might encounter, how to use money- -but almost nothing else. When she had initially created him, she had expected a pliable but unthinking drone. Instead she got something intelligent, something that already knew how to fight, something that remembered what he had once been. “I wonder. How much is in that mind of his?”

“A great deal,” said the shadow, smiling.

The door to their “cabin”- -really more of a large shipping crate- -creaked as it opened. Brown was immediately struck by a strong, unpleasant smell. A sound of heaving and of a torrent of liquid falling into a plastic bucket filled the air.

“Come on, honey,” said Gell, who was holding Rainbow Dash’s hair as she continued to empty the contents of her stomach into a pail, “get it all out. It’s okay.”

Rainbow Dash heaved again, but not much came out. She moaned into the bucket.

“Really?” said Proctor_Dash, pushing past Brown. “Really? You’re Rainbow Dash, and you get airsick?”

“Hey,” said the real Rainbow Dash, angrily lifting her head out of the bucket and wiping away some of the vomit on her chin. “I’m Rainbow Dash. I don’t usually travel by air- -oh Celestia!” She shoved her head back into the bucket and continued to fill it. “Eew,” she groaned. “It came out my nose that time.”

“Rainbow Dash,” said Brown, not knowing what to say next. He had a desire to help her- -it was his primary objective- -but he did not know how to stop her pain.

“It’s okay. Don’t touch me, Brown.” She stood up, blowing her nose into the bucket.

“Here,” said Twilight_Proctor. “Try these.” He produced a box of dark colored, dried fruits.

“What are these?” said Rainbow Dash, looking as though she were about to continue emptying her stomach. “Not really in the mood for food.”

“They’re made with ginger,” said Twilight_Proctor. “It helps with motion sickness.”

“Thanks,” said Rainbow Dash, taking a fruit. She chewed it slowly. “Oh, wow,” she said, swallowing it quickly. “That is gross.”

“And yet in incredibly high demand.”

“I was not aware that Pegasi become nauseous in flight,” said Brown.

“We don’t,” snapped Rainbow Dash. “I do. If I can’t see the sky- -oooh. Nope. Stay down, gross fruit- -no. It’s the same with boats. They tried to station me on a carrier for a mission with the Wonderbolts. That ended very, very poorly.”

“Well,” said Proctor_Dash, his wings slowly beginning to materialize. “I got you something that might help.” He produced a large glass bottle filled with a substance layered into several colors, but strangely lacking a label.

Rainbow Dash’s eyes widened. “No way! Rainbow gin?! Where did you even get that?”

“There’s a Pegasus caravan outside. I charged all their fuel cells for them in exchange for this.” He handed it to Rainbow Dash. “Take it. Although I love rainbow gin, I can’t actually drink it. Actually, come to think of it, I think I’m just programmed to believe I love rainbow gin because you do so much.”

“Oh, wow,” said Rainbow Dash. “Thank you.”

“That was the gift?” said Brown.

“No. That was incidental,” said Proctor_Dash hurriedly. He produced a different object; this one was a small device that fit in his hoof.

“Where are you keeping all this stuff?” asked Gell, finally releasing Rainbow Dash’s hair.

“A lady never tells,” said Proctor_Rarity. Then, as Proctor_Dash. “This is something I’ve been meaning to give to you forever. Except I couldn’t find the right memory chip for it.”

“Um…what is it?” asked Rainbow Dash.

Rainbow Dash took the chip from Proctor and looked at it closely. It was small and difficult to manipulate with hooves, but easy enough to hold with the claws in her robotic arm.

“My memories,” said Proctor_Dash. “Well, some of them. Specifically, everything that pertains to Scootaloo.”

Rainbow Dash felt her eyes drop, and a sharp surge of excitement and pain inside her heart. “Scoots?” she said. “You mean my Scootaloo?”

“Yeah!” said Proctor_Dash, excited. “I know how proud I am of her- -and I’m not even the real Rainbow Dash, so I figured that you would really like this!”

“What kind of a name is Scootaloo?” asked Brown.

“Hate to agree with the fluff, but I was thinking the same thing.”

“It is a great name,” said Proctor_Dash angrily. “And you two are hardly in a position to criticize.”

“Yeah,” admitted Gell. “My parents gave me a dude name.”

“How do I use this?” said Rainbow Dash. “Proctor! Show me how!”

“Just put it in the port at the manipulator module.”

Rainbow Dash searched her gold-colored robotic hoof, and eventually found what Proctor was talking about: a small vertical slit installed where her hoof extended between two of the golden plates that formed the end of her leg. She inserted the chip with her mouth. As she did, a hologram appeared before her. It displayed something that looked like a user interface, complete with a semi-translucent but color-correct 3D Scootaloo in the center. Rainbow Dash was surprised to see it look up at her and smile.

“Scoots,” she said, tears filling her eyes, despite her attempts to stop them.

“Who is this ‘Scootaloo?” asked Brown.

“She was my- -I mean Rainbow Dash’s…sister?”

“Yeah,” said Rainbow Dash. “Yeah she was.”

“By Satin- -she looks just like a little demon,” said Gell, looking closely at the picture. “The little wings, the orange coat, the purple hair- -well, a male demon. That’s basically what they look like.”

“Scootaloo is actually pretty famous on her own,” said Proctor_Dash. “I mean, there’s a lot of data there. But the highlights, with pictures.” He pointed at Rainbow Dash’s arm, and she felt it shudder as the interface shifted on its own, changing. It became a still picture. In it was an adult Scootaloo, looking more beautiful than Rainbow Dash had ever imagined. Floating next to her was some kind of animal, apparently captured in mid-flight. It looked something like a moth, but with fleshy bat-like wings and more eyes than any normal moth.

“Unholy nuts!” said Gell, leaning so close to the hologram that her nose passed through. She pointed at the animal. “Do you know what that is?”

“Um, no,” said Rainbow Dash.

“That’s a varnaq!”

“Yes,” said Twilight_Proctor. “That is Bloody Mary. Scootaloo summoned her in her teen years. It was her loyal pet through her life.”

“No way- -she tamed a varnaq?”

“Is that significant?” asked Brown.

“You don’t- -” Gell sighed. “A varnaq is a type of demon,” she explained. “I mean, not like me, or my people, but like what you would probably call an animal. They’re vicious and carnivorous, known for carrying off ponies back to Tartarus. I mean, even I don’t even get near them. And she tamed one.”

“So…it’s pretty epic?” asked Rainbow Dash.

“There yeah it is,” said Gell, as though it were obvious.

The image shifted again. This one showed an adult Scootaloo, dressed in some sort of absurdly tight garment. She was holding a helmet under one hoof and leaning against a vehicle. Rainbow Dash recognized it being one of the same kind that she had seen in Appleloosa- -a motorcycle.

“Scootaloo was also a prodigious daredevil,” said Twilight_Proctor. “She was born lacking wing abductor muscles, and as such, never flew for more than a few seconds.”

“She- -she never flew?” interrupted Rainbow Dash.

“No.”

“Oh,” she said, feeling suddenly dejected. “If only…that’s my fault, isn’t it?”

“How could it be your fault?” asked Gell.

“If I had been there. If I had taught here, maybe she would have- -”

“She was born defective,” said Brown, bluntly. “Nothing you could have done would have assuaged that.”

Rainbow Dash glared at him, fully prepared to jump over Proctor and wring his fluffy neck- -assuming she could find it- -but Proctor continued.

“Anyway…despite being unable to fly, Scootaloo was known as one of the first motorcycle riding ponies. And for her experiments with early back-mounted repulsion packs. The wings helped with that. She was the first pony to break the sound barrier on a motor vehicle. And…” the image changed. Now it showed Scootaloo wearing some kind of bizarre armor, standing before a vast and complicated schematic; it appeared to be out of a magazine. “She spent much of her life researching interdimensional travel. She eventually achieved it, and…”

The image shifted again, now showing a painting. It showed a middle-aged Scootaloo standing on the back of an enormous varnaq. She was dressed in power armor, with a pair of scantily clad stallions clinging to her legs. Above her head, she was wielding an oversized crystalline hammer- -which was on fire. She was about to bring it down upon a force of undead, laser-wielding centaurs that her varnaq was already starting to tear into.

“Holy buck,” whispered Rainbow Dash. She turned to Proctor. “Can I have a poster made of this? This is epic! Did this really happen?”

“Maybe,” said Proctor_Dash. “I like to think it did. After her daredevil career got to boring, she started a life as an interdimensional adventurer.”

“What the- -an adventurer? Is that even- -oh wow…”

“And, in addition to being a famous stuntpony, a brilliant inventor, and a guardian of peace in the multiverse, she also chaired the Cutie Mark Crusaders.” The image changed again, this time showing semi-adult Scootaloo standing beside to familiar ponies. One was clearly Sweetie Belle, although she was dressed in a black and strange dress that was clearly made by Rarity and wearing a significant amount of eyeshadow. The other was Applebloom, her nearly luminescent green eyes seeming to stare out of the hologram. At that age, she looked surprisingly similar to her sister Applejack. The three of them were standing next to a tall, purple alicorn who was presenting them with a kind of award- -an alicorn that Rainbow Dash realized was Twilight.

“What is that?” asked Brown, stepping forward. He put his hoof through the hologram, distorting it. The shift seemed to distract him for a moment, and he pawed at the image, causing it to shift like water.

“What?” said Rainbow Dash. “It looks like some kind of award- -it’s got their club’s symbol on it- -”

“No,” said Brown. “The monster. The purple one.”

“Monster?” said Rainbow Dash, surprised. “You mean Twilight?”

“She has both a horn and wings. This is impossible. Ergo, she is a grotesque monster. What is she?”

The hologram vanished as Rainbow Dash brought back her hoof, and slammed the metal of her robotic limb into the side of Brown’s face. Punching him was like punching a column of concrete, but the mechanical appendage was strong, and still forced him to take several steps back. His eyes widened in shock and confusion.

“You- -you hit me,” he said, sounding genuinely hurt.

“Don’t talk about my friend like that!” snapped Rainbow Dash. “Twilight was one of my best friends! If you call her a monster again, I will drop you out of this airship!”

“But…Rainbow Dash…” The skin around his eye was discoloring with a substantial bruise, and beginning to swell. Then, almost imperceptibly, it sparked with blue magic and began to heal. “I apologize, I did not- -”

“Out!” said Rainbow Dash, pointing.

“At least give me a chance to- -”

“Get out!”

Brown looked like he was about to cry, but instead took a deep breath. “As you wish. I will be outside the door if I am needed.” He walked past Proctor and pulled the mechanism that unlocked the door. He stepped outside and slammed it closed.

Rainbow Dash was breathing heavily.

“Wow, Dashie,” said Gell. “That was pretty hot.”

“Not now, Gell.”

“Actually,” said Proctor_Dash. “That might have been a little harsh. The poor guy’s never seen an alicorn. I mean, I wanted to hit him too- -but he doesn’t even know what one is.”

Rainbow Dash did feel a little bit bad, especially as she thought about it a little more. She still could not get over the rage she was feeling, though. It was not just Brown calling Twilight a monster, but calling Scootaloo “deformed” just because she had trouble flying.

Rainbow Dash snatched up the bottle of rainbow gin, the colors rocking under the motion of the bottle. “I’m going outside. I need some air.”

Chapter 45: Aboard

View Online

The airship hummed loudly as it hovered over the clouds below. The air was cold and thin, and the wind stiff, but the storms seemed to be trapped below it the swirling bank of dark clouds. Brown took a deep breath, smelling the exhaust and engine ionization that the airship was dumping into the upper atmosphere. Neither the cold nor the thin air bothered him; his woolen body was protected from both. Although he could not recall Exmoor, he understood that it was cold- -cold, and very beautiful. He wondered if the Commander would take him there one day, so that he might see it.

The dark sky itself was blank and clear, and so peaceful. Behind the airship, however, a number of lights trailed. In the dim high-horizon light, it was possible for Brown to see the hundreds of Pegasi who had indexed themselves into the airship’s gravity wake, trailing behind it in the warm air produced by its thermal sinks. They had come from all across the land, from regions where Pegasi still remembered the old ways. Where they had truly come from, Brown did not know. Nor did he know where they were going, and he did not wonder.

There was a roaring from the air around them, and a rainbow-colored contrail appeared near Brown, spiraling rapidly around the airship. It passed him quickly, but aft, he could see Rainbow Dash racing ahead with several other Pegasi, all of them except her struggling against the strong wind and distortions that clung to the edge of the airship.

When they reached their goal, Rainbow Dash spread her wings and fell backward away from the other, returning to the Pegasus V and nearly colliding with them before gracefully turning over in the air and sliding into the formation. There was some cheering from behind audible over the roar of the engines and high-atmospheric wind.

A pony approached Brown from the side and put his hoofs on the railing, leaning of the edge. Brown did not think too much of it- -he could not take his eyes off Rainbow Dash.

“She is impressive, isn’t she?” said the stranger.

“For a Pegasus, I suppose,” he replied. In truth, he was impressed with her. He had been watching her fly for over an hour. Much of the time, she would stay with the other Pegasi in the gravity wake, but every few minutes she would race forward and perform some kind of daring athletic feat, sometimes with others and sometimes alone. Brown had come to admire her athleticism and poise, and the way she moved with such precision and grace. He had even held his breath in anticipation as she had rounded the ship and closed her wings around her, darting through a foot-wide hole in the ship’s scalding heat sink before spreading her wings on the other side unharmed.

He was still not sure if she was a soldier, or if she truly had been. Her behavior was more that of a performer than anything else- -but nonetheless, Brown liked watching. As he watched, though, he began to doubt exactly how much she needed protecting, even as he was overcome with a strangely paradoxical urge to ensure her safety.

“You have a thing for her, don’t you?”

“Hardly,” said Brown, still watching Rainbow Dash from a distance, her face illuminated by the lights that the Pegasi’s carts held. “Besides. I believe I may have insulted her. Badly. She hates me.”

“Hey,” said the stranger. “You look like a gambling pony. Or a gamble. Do you want to make a bet?”

“I have no money,” said Brown.

“Well, you might get money eventually? Get paid? Or something similar?”

“Yes, I suppose.”

“Okay then. Three bits says she dies before the end of this story.”

Brown turned sharply toward the pony at his side, and found his face oddly close to that of a green unicorn. The unicorn, however, did not have a short spiraling horn but rather a bifurcated, antler-like horn. He also bore a long crescent scar down one side of his body.

“Why would you say something like that? Am I to take that as a threat?”

The green pony just stared, smiling widely.

“Hey, who are you talking to?” said a voice behind Brown. He turned rapidly and came once again face-to-face with the green pony, now behind him. Upon seeing this, he turned rapidly to where the green pony had just been, and found him gone. When he looked the other direction once again, he found himself alone.

“What the…well,” he said, sitting down on the cold floor. “I believe I may be hallucinating.”

Five leaned against the wall to one of the inner rooms of the airship. This room was one of several minor mechanical rooms, or would have been back when the military would have been using this airship almost a century ago. The torpedo tubes had long since been removed; they now used the space to store brooms.

From within the room, she could hear repeated thumping, as well as repeated moaning.

“Oh! Yes! Right there!” cried a female voice from inside the room. That was promptly followed by one much louder thump. “No, wait!” cried the voice. “I’m going to- -I’m gonna- -EEEEEE- -eeeee- -EEEEEeeeeeEEEE!”

There was a sound of liquid sloshing against the floor. Five was thoroughly disgusted thinking about those fluids, and pulled the glass capillary tube she was holding out from behind her eye. She applied several droplets of the blood onto a pregnancy test, and watched the results. They were not good- -but not positive either. Regardless she resolved to increase chemotherapy.

The mare within the room continued to squeal for nearly a minute. Then, panting. “Oh- -I’m so sorry! I got it on your face!”

“It’s okay,” said Gell from within the room. “I really do like your flavor.”

“Oh you!” There were some sounds of motions inside. “If only my husband could do what you can! But I didn’t finish you…”

To Five, that was obvious. Gell could almost never finish without a castration involved- -unless her grandmother was involved. That was a set of memories that Five tried to avoid thinking about. Lobotomizing herself repeatedly had not improved the situation.

The door opened, and a highly disheveled Pegasus mare stepped out. She was covered in sweat, and her wings were as extended as they possibly could be and in need of a thorough preening. She was wearing a uniform for the airship company, though, so Five assumed that she needed to get back to work.

“Ex- -excuse me,” she said, blushing as she pushed past Five, zipping up the front of her vest.

Gell followed her out. She herself was sliding her armor back on and licking her face.

“You make me sick,” said Five.

“An,” said Gell, listening. “You were lurking? Creeping? Is my little baby finally growing up into a cuddly-wuddly pervert?”

“Again, sickening.”

Gell pointed at the stream of blood coming from behind Five’s eye. “Did you…did you just retro-orbital bleed yourself?”

“Did you just have relations with a married mare?”

“Um, An…do I need to define ‘demon’ for you again?”

“Not the point,” said Five.

Gell hitched the straps to her armor and stepped out of the room. “Might want to get a mopping in there,” she said, closing the door.

“I’m not doing it,” said Five, who joined her through the narrow and musty-smelling hallway.

“So what are you doing?” said Gell. “I figured you would be back in the basement.”

“I’ve done what I can. That is not the point. I stopped at the station.”

“And? You came to me?”

“Something interesting has happened.”

“Not as interesting as Gap Spanner back then- -blessings, she was flexible.”

“More so, even. Or not. Eew. Bad images.”

“Well then, what? I don’t have all day,” said Gell. “There is a nap that must be taken now.”

“Close to two hundred cities have ceased to exist.”

Gell stopped. “Wait, what?”

“Gone. Eradicated. All communication lost. According to the broadcasts, leveled.”

“Leveled…by what?”

“The unicorns detected a magic surge. And the golems, it seems, have survived. They march.”

“You mean…Thebe?”

“That I do.”

“So, what? Thebe just went postal on the world?” Gell paused. “Well, I suppose it was bound to happen eventually…but what does this matter to us?”

“It means she is planning an all-out war on Equestria,” said Five. “A rather one-sided war. I don’t know why. But it means that she will be distracted. We have a better chance of taking Twilight Sparkle if Thebe is distracted.”

“So…she just wiped away, what, several billion ponies, and now you want to break into her house?”

“I doubt she lives in a house,” said Five. She actually did not know where Thebe lived- -nopony knew. Nopony, it seemed, knew anything about Thebe, aside from the fact that she was an alicorn.

“It doesn’t matter if she lives in Discord’s left ear- -I’m not going anywhere near her.”

“So you say.”

“Is this just part of your whole deathwish thing?”

“Do you think Thebe really could kill me? Permanently?”

“Do you really want me to answer that?” She paused. “Why are you even bothering to tell me this, anyway?”

“It’s useful intelligence.”

“Um, no, it isn’t. I don’t care what Thebe does any more than she cares what I do. I can’t believe you came all the way here to tell me about golems that we will probably never even see.”

“I came with two pieces of information.”

“Well, the second had better be that you finally decided to fillet that fluffy slave you bought, because I am starving.”

“No,” said Five, telepathically scanning the area for anything alive and visually scanning it for any cameras. All she found were several rather large and surprisingly intelligent cockroaches beneath the floorboards. “The other thing is immediate. I saw them loading something onto the vessel.”

“You mean aside from the illegal guns?”

“Yes.”

“And what exactly was it?”

“I did not see closely. It was well hidden, and well guarded. But it looked like a high-containment stasis chamber.”

“How big?”

“Large,” said Five.

“And you tell me this second?”

“Well, yes.”

“And just what do you think is in that box?”

“Probably nothing to be concerned about,” said Five.

“Then why do I suddenly have a really bad feeling about it?”

Five did not know why, but she was having a similar feeling. In her mind, she visualized the pod she had seen on the station- -a hard, sealed, white container, not unlike a large coffin, supported by gravity stabilizers and pushed by several white-clad ponies. Beside it stood several guards that were well armed, yet bore no insignias. The box was sealed well, and she doubted that she could have reached into it with her shadow’s power, even if there had been a mind within. It was also clearly expensive- -meaning its owner had money, and yet was shipping it on a barely skyworthy freighter.

Suddenly, Five shivered, and not because of the cold air.

Five and Gell returned to their shipping crate and Brown, now joined by Philomena who nestled herself in his fluff, returned to watching Rainbow Dash laugh and play with the Pegasi gypsies trailing behind the humming freight vessel. Higher above them, however, in an isolated section of the ship, two armed unicorn guards stood watch outside a metal door.

Behind that door was what had once been the ship’s infirmary, back when it had cruised the skies as a proud military cruiser. Now it was used as just another room to contain cargo. Because of its size, it would normally be stacked with boxes and crates of various sorts. Now, however, at the request of a client who had paid quite well, it was empty, save for one container and the pony who sat beside it.

Downy Rest shifted in her chair, smoothing her white dress and cap in her chair and flexing her wings. Once again, she checked the vital meters connected to the stasis chamber. Nothing had changed in the two and a half minutes since she had checked before. Blood pressure was strange, but stable, and blood oxygen was good. His pulse was slow, as to be expected; the pod was suppressing almost all of his biological function to slow the progression of the disease.

She reached her hoof and ran it over the angular white surface of the chamber. It was so flat and smooth, but so much like a coffin. Seeing him like that made her want to weep, but she knew that it was her duty to remain strong. More than anything, though, she longed to open it, to see him, to hold his hoof and tell him that it would be okay.

Of them all, though- -the nurses, resting in their beds, and the guards outside- -she was the only one who had actually seen master Pocket in his current state. Only she knew how the disease had ravaged his body. For anypony beside her to see would simply be unthinkable- -the damage it would do to the Pocket family’s reputation would be devastating. To know that Linty Pocket, the son of the famed Deep Pocket, had been reduced to such a state- -the scandal would be incomprehensible.

Preventing Scandal, of course, was one of Downy Rest’s primary duties. It was one of the primary reasons she had been sent out with master Pocket. To watch over him, and to care for him, as she had always done. Her family had been bred by the Pockets for countless generations so serve as maids and nannies. Downy Rest’s traits had proven adequate to be assigned to Linty Pocket. At age twelve, she had been handed him as a foal. She had raised him, cared for him, and watched him grow into a fine stallion.

She had begged him to stay at the manor. He could receive all his training there, she knew, and prepare to take the reins of their family when the time came. A bride had even been chosen for him, a fine but mildly inbred socialite from the Rich family. Linty had been different, though. He had wanted to travel, to attend college in a faraway place, to just live like a normal pony.
Downy Rest had gone with him, because she would always go with him. She loved him. At first, it had been like a mother loving a child- -but as time passed, it had grown to be more than that. So much more.

Then the disease had come. Ponies had been brought in from distant lands, all with an ailment that nopony understood. Pocket had volunteered to help treat them, but in the end, he had only contracted what they had. He had become infected. Upon hearing this, Deep Pocket had ordered his son recalled to the manor, to receive the best treatment that could be afforded him. As the only child of the Pockets, his survival was crucial. Of course, transporting the infected had been declared illegal. The entire city had been placed under quarantine. The only way out had been to smuggle him away, to get him back to his family on this decrepit smuggling ship.

The lights flickered. Downy rest reached for a tissue and once again wiped her eyes. She was trying to hold back the tears, and when she was around her subordinates, she could- -but when she was alone, she could not hold them back. Knowing that he was in that box, his vital signs medically suppressed, his body a shadow of its formal self- -it was almost too much for her. More than anything, she wished it had been her instead.

The consistent beeping of the machines changed slightly. The difference was subtle, but it attracted Downy Rest’s attention. She stood up and looked at the machine. At first she wondered if it had been an artifact of some sort, but then she saw it again. The heartrate monitor was reading increased pulse.

Downy Rest pressed her hoof against the controls, adjusting the display. A hologram appeared, showing the waveforms coming from the pulse. She had spent enough time helping Linty study to know that the output was strange, but also that it was oddly healthy. Either way, though, he was mostly frozen- -it should not have been increasing.

An alarm suddenly went off. A hologram popped up, displaying brain scans from within the pod. The heart rate accelerated rapidly as Downy Rest tried to read them. Then she gasped- -they indicated neural activity, but more than that. He was in pain.

“No,” said Downy Rest. “No- -master Pocket, please! You need to stay asleep!”

She increased the suppression systems that kept the pod contained, but they hardly seemed to help. There was not much she could do.

Her mind was racing, and she did the only thing she could think to do. She leaned over the container, embracing it as though it were her master. “Don’t worry,” she said. “Don’t worry, Linty, I’m here!” She squeezed it tighter, and as her tears covered the white surface, she started to sing. The song was a lullaby- -one that had been given to her at the breeding farm, but one that Linty had loved so much. When he was scared, or sick, she would sing it. At first she had hated the song- -but the look in his eyes when she started singing, to when they often closed when it was finished; that had made her love it.

The heart rate monitor slowed, and she smiled. She moved her hoof across the casket, and pressed her cheek against it. “Don’t worry. Don’t worry, Linty. It will get better. I’m here for you. I’ll always be here for you…”

Almost as soon as she had finished saying it, the container shook with a sudden surge of force. A five-fingered hand burst through the center, and a five-fingered hand grasped Downy Rest’s head.

“Linty?” she said in surprise.

The hand closed, and her head was crushed by the force, the pulp of her brain and fragments of her skull pouring out from between the fingers. Her blood spilled across the white of the casket, and her body and wings convulsed for a moment as the life left her.

The stasis chamber exploded in a violent burst of fragments that tore into the walls of the room. From within, the tall bipedal figure stood, still holding the remnants of a Pegasus by its cervical vertebrae. It looked down with its sightless eyes, and it laughed as it tossed the corpse away. All around it, the explosion of glass and metal stopped, and they shifted under his control. Then they returned to him, pulling bits of the walls with him, encasing his body in a new shell- -a correct and perfect shell, save for the mark on his white-armored shoulder that he found he could not remove.

The metal door burst open on the other side of the room, and the two unicorns from outside burst in. The creature saw the terror on their faces as they looked into the pair of sightless, glowing eyes that he had assembled over his vestigial face. They raised their weapons and their magic, and Linty was aware of the irony. They were now raising their weapons against the one who they had been hired to protect.

They never had a chance to fire. Two tendrils of flexible material extended from Linty’s body, penetrating both of their heads. One of them was killed instantly, but the other seemed to be marginally alive as Linty pulled him inward, tearing apart his body on a molecular level to continue repairs to his own. He watched as the unicorn attempted to scream. The suffering of lesser creatures made Linty happy, because he now saw the truth: they were inferior in all ways, and deserved nothing but suffering for their weakness.

He then turned his attention to the ship around him. He was vaguely aware that he was flying, supported by some kind of primitive machine. This was, in its own way, fortunate. He had been unable to build his armor properly with the materials he had at hand.

So he placed his hand out over him, and reached deeper into the ship, into the parts of it that his magic forced him to understand. Then he began to pull it apart.

“And then she said: if you get in!” said Rainbow Dash.

The Pegasi around her burst out laughing, one of them so hard that he nearly dropped out of his gravity well and into the wake of the airship far ahead of them. Rainbow Dash took another large sip from the bottle of rainbow gin, and passed it to the next nearest Pegasus.

Far ahead of them, the transport vessel continued to trundle onward through the dark sky far above the clouds. It was lit by numerous lights on its surface, most of them a sickly, industrial orange color. Rainbow Dash was extremely glad that she was not on it. Not only was the airsickness a severe problem, but she enjoyed flying with the formation of nomadic Pegasi. For the first time in a long time, she actually felt happy.

The air around them, though thin, was warm, and the flying was easy. Rainbow Dash knew that it was warm because of the ship ahead’s exhaust, but was not sure why she felt so light when she was behind it. The others could not really explain it either, but they seemed to have learned from experience that travelling behind the airships made long-distance flying easier. One old stallion even told a story of how he had once fallen asleep in the wake of an aircraft carrier one evening and awoken halfway across Equestria without needing to beat his wings even once- -and with the way Rainbow Dash felt in the wake of even this small freighter, she did not doubt it.

At times, though, she had gotten bored. She had ventured outside of the wake, to where the air had the crisp chill of high skies and where the wind was strong and exhilarating. When the others had seen her flying, some had joined them- -and she had outpaced them all. She had performed stunts for them, and raced with some of others. They had seen her fly, and they all knew the name Rainbow Dash. Rainbow Dash herself was not sure if they truly understood that she was the real Rainbow Dash, but she got the impression from them that they simply accepted that fact, as if on some level they knew.

Above all, Rainbow Dash was relieved to find that there were at least some Pegasi in Equestria who could still fly. Those in the cities, she learned, had largely forgotten, considering flight a useless and pointless skill- -but those from the wilds and from the settlements in the clouds, they still remembered. These were true Pegasi, their mannerisms steeped in the old ways that were dying out even in Rainbow Dash’s time. They told the stories of the ancient ponies, of Pegasus and Icarus and Pandora, and even the whispered tales of what had become of Commander Firestorm in ancient times, and the curse that Celestia had given her for her crimes.

They had many stories of their own, of course. Of great flight exploits and journeys to distant lands, and stories of so many wars, told with a smile as their eyes misted with the thought of fallen comrades. As they flew ahead to lands unknown, they told stories.

“Hey,” said a rather drunk and smiling stallion, flying up beside Rainbow Dash. He was a roan color, and named Roam. “You are- -HIC- -so impressive, Rainbow Dash. I think…I think I love you. Do you have a- -HIC- -coltfriend?”

Rainbow Dash blushed, and as she did, Roam’s wife, Wherever, descended from above him and gave him a sharp kick between the wings. He dropped out of the stream and into a lower level, where several of his friend caught him and laughed. As he did, he dropped the bottle he was holding, and his wife caught it.

“If you’re going to flirt, then you can take the consequences!” said Wherever. She turned to Rainbow Dash. “Sorry about that. He’s as bit light on taking his liquor.” She took a sip from the bottle of gin and passed it to the next pony. “But really, you are impressive. A pony like you is rare, and we’re already a dying breed.” She sighed, and then smiled mischievously. “You should get married, before you get too old. I have a son about your age, if you’re interested.”

Rainbow Dash blushed and sputtered, but as the others laughed, she realized that Wherever had not been serious.

“Very funny,” she said, rolling in the air. “But I don’t know if any stallion can handle this.”

“Hey,” said a female bat pony floating beside her Pegasus husband, her dragon-like eyes staring out into the distance at the vehicle ahead of them. One thing that Rainbow Dash had noticed was that there were a surprising number of bat ponies among the Pegasi. Not a lot, but several, and they were invariably married to a member of the tribe. Rainbow Dash had not initially understood why, until she had seen a bat stallion up close. “There’s some sort of brown thing watching us.” She squinted. “What even is that?”

“That’s Brown,” muttered Rainbow Dash. “He’s in charge of ‘protecting’ me. Like I need that- -he’s just watching because he was ordered to. If he could fly, he would probably just pull me back onto that ship.”

“Is it…a pony?”

“I…actually, I don’t know.”

“I knew this stallion once,” said an old stallion, floating into the conversation. “He was so hairy…once, a guy hired us to catch this sheep- -”

All the nearby Pegasi around them groaned.

“Not that story again,” said one of them.

Some of them laughed, and a pair of fillies flew by over them, laughing as they chased each other. Rainbow Dash looked up at them, at first absentmindedly- -but then her flight instincts noticed something strange.

She moved quickly without thinking as they dropped out of the air, catching them as the other Pegasi also dropped several feet in the air, fluttering their wings rapidly to correct themselves.

“What happened?” cried Wherever.

Her answer was answered almost immediately a sudden percussive blast filled the air around them. Rainbow Dash looked toward the source, and saw a surge of flame billowing out of the side of the freighter ahead. Its lights flickered and went out as it started to list to one side. Something had gone wrong.

Rainbow Dash felt a sudden surge of fear pass through her body, which rapidly resolved into a surge of adrenaline- -a call for action. She handed the frightened fillies to the nearest of the ponies around her, and raced forward.

“What are you doing?” cried one of the ponies behind her. “We have to get out of here- -if that thing goes up, we- -”

“There are ponies on that ship!” cried Rainbow Dash. “We have to help them!” The Pegasi looked at each other, confused, but did not move forward. “Come on,” yelled Rainbow Dash. “Are you really Pegasi, or was that all talk back there?”

They frowned in anger, but Rainbow Dash knew that it was not directed at her.

“Right,” said the old stallion, the one who had started a story about a hairy pony and a sheep. “I’ll dance a jig at the gates of Tartarus before somepony can claim I’m a coward.”

The others nodded, and the most able-bodied of them moved forward. They flew toward Rainbow Dash, but not past her, and she smiled. Then she turned and led them into the burning, falling airship.

The ship tilted to the side, and continued to burn. Most of its reactor was gone, as well as the entire cooling system, and it was dropping altitude quickly, almost resisting as it fell. The creature that walked through the halls did not care, though. Even as the ship tilted in the air, he remained upright, having realized that the gravity that had for so long bound him to the land below was little more than an illusion.

The halls around him were tight and small, too small for his corrected body to pass through unhindered. So, as he moved, he tore them apart. Tubes and wires burst around him, pouring fuel and coolant into the hallways and further contributing to the fires that were raging throughout the dying airship.

As he walked, a pony ran by him. She was on fire, and screaming as she burned. Linty did not stop, but he made one quick motion with a bladed finger and bisected the pony. He watched as she fell, suddenly distracted from the flames by losing half her body, and then died. Linty found this enjoyable, because he knew that lesser creatures deserved punishment.

He ruminated on this thought, and came to the conclusion that their crime of inferiority was due to one simple factor: they were different. Anything different was inherently flawed, disgusting, and dangerous. This was even true of the others of his own kind, who he knew of without ever meeting. He remembered that somehow, he had once loved a pony named Downy Rest. He could not remember why. Now all that was left to love were the machines, the designs of which filled his mind as he marched.

It would have been easy for him to destroy such a primitive piece of half-technology as this vessel, to consume its contents and add them to the Machine that the others were building and that he would soon be building as well. It would simply be a matter of a thought, to extend his consciousness outside of his body, beyond the worthless organic vestige that he held within his true body. He would know the machines, and understand the, and break the bindings that linked them- -and then swallow them into the plane where the parts to build things were stored.

He had, however, sensed something unusual. There were two anomalies on this vessel, ones he had sensed even when he was finishing recovering from his defective form in stasis. One held Order, but was not a Choggoth. The other signal smelled strongly of Chaos. Linty had no qualms with allowing the ship to fall slowly, and to let the defective beings aboard it suffer in the fire and within their own fear- -and he knew that he needed to investigate the beckoning call of Chaos.

Suddenly, the hallway widened, and Linty became aware that he had just burst through a door. His magic scanned the area around him. He found himself in a large room at the front of the airship, one with a wall made entirely out of plates of transparent plastic, some of which were patched with gray tape. Through it, Linty could see the rapidly approaching storm clouds that he was beginning to descend into.

The room was filled with chairs, and appeared to be the bridge. The noise of his entry caused the pony in the center to stand up and look wildly around the room. He was green, with a strange antler-like horn.

“We’re down, lads!” he cried. As he did, all the other ponies at their stations stood up and began to gallop around the room in a panic, screaming and crying. It took Linty a moment to realized that they were all copies of the same pony.

He moved forward rapidly, grasping the one from the captain’s chair by the neck. He produced an extension from one of his arms and his mind immediately constructed an infection vector. All in one swift motion, he slammed the spike into the center of the green pony’s chest- -only to find that instead of holding a pony, he was holding an effigy made of pure butter.

The vector could not infect butter, so Linty dropped the statue.

“Poor choice of words?” said the green pony, now standing in the shadows across the room. His eyes narrowed, and he smiled. “How about ‘oh the humanity’, then?”

Linty spoke in his native language, and was surprised to hear it expressed audibly. As he did, he realized why: without knowing it, he had walked into a Chaos field. The green “pony” was hardly even a pony at all.

“Therenoth alit von clurnein,” he heard himself say.

“Eesh,” said the pony. “You’re brains are scrambled worse than I expected. And coming from me, that’s statistically significant.” He put his hoof to his mouth and whispered. “At least, only if you’re p-value involves peeing soup!”

“Sirev, nock althen Varii!”

“Duh,” said the pony. “I am the spirit of Chaos. Eyes of the Thoughth and all. And I would hardly call you a Chaos user. You don’t seem to understand a bit of it, and I have bit a lot of it. No creativity at all.” He shook his head. “I mean, right now, I could turn you into a newt. A newt! At least until you get that ticker clicking. But you…” He sighed. “What am I going to do with you?”

“Nos.”

“Um, niet. I know what you are. I know what you are planning, and how Thebe cannot stop it. How she failed to stop it. Or will fail. And I know what it does. But…” From somewhere behind him, he drew out a device- -a chair leg, it seemed, wrapped in barbed wire. “Until then…how about I show you Celestia’s favorite interrogation technique?”

Linty stepped forward. In part because he felt threatened by even the thought of a pony knowing their plans- -and in part because he found he was not aware of the plans himself.

“I also know that the second half of this story is not nearly as well thought out. And that Discord secretly hordes his wife’s panties. And what exactly those ‘eyes’ in your skull are for. And- -”

The Chaos field was suddenly disrupted, and space itself distorted, causing Linty to step back. The pony’s eyes widened as a figure clad in yellow appeared from the shadows behind him. It reached forward with one long-fingered hand and placed it on the pony’s shoulder.

The green pony’s eyes widened. “Oh poopies,” he said. Then he turned his attention to Linty. “Gotta go in a second no more time for airship references you can suck my coxswain!”

Space distorted again, and both of the Chaos users were gone. The field they had produced collapsed, and Linty found his final question falling silent in the air. He paused for just a moment, and then turned his attention back to the sinking airship, and to the storm now outside the windows. Then he began walking.

The vessel shuddered, and the starboard section dropped several feet. One of the Pegasi cried out as he was rolled off into the stream of wind beside it. Rainbow Dash saw him spread his wings as he was whipped through the air into the distance.

“Rainbow!” cried one of the Pegasi that had managed to stay attached, a badly burned unicorn over his shoulder. “The storm! If we get lower, we won’t be able to fly out!”

Rainbow Dash looked at the edge of the ship. Beyond it, the sky had become almost black. In the eternal darkness, it was impossible to see exactly how strong the storm was, but it felt strong. It sounded like a horde of windegos pouring through the air around them, the clouds sometimes being lit by the glow of lightning.

“Do you have everypony you can carry?”

“Yes!” called another Pegasus, barely dodging a falling piece of debris from above.

“Then go!”

“Not without you!”

“No! You can’t fly in the storm- -I can.”

“You’re insane! That’s an uncontrolled ice tempest! You would be torn apart!”

“Go! I still have friends on this ship!”

The other Pegasi seemed to understand, and were all too willing to leave- -even though they all hesitated at the thought of leaving her alone. They did, however, rising through the dark clouds and intense, swirling winds. Had they waited just a minute longer, the ship would have sunk too deep for them to escape, especially carrying the wounded.

Rainbow Dash could feel the frigid air against her wings, and even stabilizing herself against the tilt of the ship was difficult. She was confident that she would be able to pull herself through the storm- -she was, after all, the best flyer in Equestrian history since Pegasus himself- -but she was still filled with an instinctive fear.

“Five!” she cried out through the air and the fire of the failing airship. “Come on, Five! Gell! Brown…Proctor, even!”

There was no response, and she moved along the deck of the ship rapidly, avoiding the fires and trying to take shelter in the lee produced by the ship against the ice storms. Lightning flashed again, and this time it struck the vessel itself. Rainbow Dash was nearly thrown back by the explosive force of the instant thunder, and the ship momentarily lost what little power it had left and suddenly dropped several feet before the engines hummed back to life.

In the silence before the engines struggled back to life, however, Rainbow Dash heard a voice. She looked to her left into one of the narrow hallways, past the flames and smoke. She paused, listening- -and confirmed what she had feared. There was definitely somepony trapped in there.

“Hold on!” she called. Without hesitation, or even thinking, she pushed through the door and into the smoky internal hallways. All around her, there was a sound of the ship rending itself apart. As a Pegasus, she was not familiar with airship design, but she knew that it would not hold for much longer. If the engines did not give out, the superstructure would.

She paused, listening through the breaking metal and the sound of the fire.

“And yet the memory is clear,” said the voice. “I recall it- -I did love her.”

The voice sounded strange, and Rainbow Dash blinked. Her head heart listening to it. Even stranger, though, was that it did not seem panicked at all. It seemed only to be ruminating, as though it were walking through a calming fall field instead of five minutes from falling to Equestria below.

“Hold on!” cried Rainbow Dash, coughing through the smoke. The hallways were thin, but without the wind, she would still be able to fly. She spread her wings and accelerated through the narrow passage.

“And yet,” said the voice, “I cannot remember why, or to what end. I love, and I love endlessly…but how can one love another? Another is…hated. Love and hate, hate and love…are they truly one and the same?”

As Rainbow Dash accelerated toward the voice, a hologram appeared before her, projected by her outstretched robotic arm. She glanced at it, and saw a warning indicating “dangerous radiation levels”. Rainbow Dash did not know what radiation was, but she knew that it had been what had given Applejack cancer- -but she ignored the danger. There was a pony in need, and she was the only one that could help him.

She burst through a wall of fire, closing her wings around herself to protect her face. Once she passed through, she found herself in a large room filled with burning, broken equipment. Both the floor and the ceiling had been torn apart, but she was not sure how. It did not look like the kind of damage that torsion or tension on the ship’s hull would cause, especially this far in.

The air felt warm, and as Rainbow Dash looked down into the sink-hole torn through the floor, she saw why. Aside from the fire, something had been exposed in the center- -something that was now reducing itself to a pool of blue-flaming liquid. Whatever machine that had been, she reasoned, was responsible for the heavy “radiation”.

“But what he said holds,” said the voice. “My goal…is it built of love, or hate?”

Rainbow Dash turned toward the voice, expecting to see a pony, perhaps one pinned under some debris, perhaps even driven insane, maybe even by whatever this “radiation” was. When her eyes met with the owner of the voice, however, she felt her body freeze.

It was not a pony at all. It was something else, something strange that she could not recognize. A tall, thin thing that stood on two legs, its body clad in white and gray armor. It was large, but narrow; she had to look up to see its face- -and when she did, she felt a sudden surge of sickness and an urge to fly away. In its head were a pair of glowing, white eyes.

It did not seem to be looking toward her, however. It had instead extended one long-fingered hand over the opened floor, and pieces of whatever was below were rising to its grasp, swirling around its body and pulling themselves into open portions of its armor.

Then it turned, and the two glowing eyes fell on Rainbow Dash. Its armor immediately shifted, sealing itself, and it lowered its arm. For a moment, they only looked at each other- -and then it started moving toward her.

Rainbow Dash pulled backward, preparing to run- -or, as she preferred to think about it, perform a “tactical retreat”. The place she came through, however, was now engulfed in flame. She could not get back through.

Before she could search out another way to escape, she suddenly stopped. Not voluntarily, but because she was being held. She looked around herself, and saw that there was a weak corona of white light suspending her in space. This creature, she realized, was using magic- -which made no sense. It had no horn.

As the paradox worked its way into her mind, she felt the magic change, grasping her tighter, pouring over. It felt strange, as though every part of her, both inside and outside, was being pulled upon.

Then it stopped. The magic released.

“Schematic is recognized,” said the creature. “Aurasus detected. Unidentified Aurasus: are you translating?”

“Trans- -translating? Translating what?” Somehow, she already knew, though. The creature had no mouth, or not a real one anyway. When it spoke, it was speaking through some alternate source, as source that made her eye and the ends of her golden feathers hurt. “Yes…yes I am.”

“Then please explain. I don’t understand. When the first came, he scanned the world. None of our children...none had survived. This made me…sad.”

“I don’t- -oh, my head- -I don’t know what you’re talking about. Who are you? What are you?”

“Your genetic code shows signs of degradation. Attempting to repair vector.” It raised its hand toward Rainbow Dash, and for some reason she felt drawn toward it, to the golden glow that seemed to be surrounding its fingers.

Before she could be touched, though, there was another sound of rending metal, and the ceiling tore open. She saw a shipping crate start to fall, and cried out. There was nowhere to run, but she ducked regardless, as if doing so would actually do anything to prevent her from being crushed.

There was no crushing, however. Rainbow Dash looked up to see the creature before her supporting the falling crate. It must have weighted several tons, and yet he was still able to hold it with almost comical ease.

“I will protect the Aurasus. I will protect our children,” it said, as emotionlessly as it said everything else.

Before Rainbow Dash could even properly thank it, she once again felt magic surrounding her. This time, though, it was different. She was not so much saturated in it as covered by a thin, hard sheet of blue-green.

“I believe,” said Twilight’s voice, “that the proper term here is- -YOINK!”

Rainbow Dash was suddenly jerked backward, away from the creature. As she was, several more beams of Proctor’s pseudo-magic lifted some of the firearms that were spilling out of the crate that the creature was holding and rapidly unloaded them into its body- -which, Rainbow Dash realized, had absolutely no effect.

“Proctor!” said Rainbow Dash. “How did you- -”

“The same way I’m going to get us out,” said Twilight_Proctor, quickly. “Which, I think, might compromise the structural integrity of what’s left of this vessel.”

“Might?!”

“Um, will.”

The projectors in Proctor’s sides surged, and a narrow, flat beam of hard-light poured out from behind him into the wall. Then, with a force that shook the entire ship, he separated it into two planes- -tearing a whole through the entire inside of the ship.

Then Rainbow Dash felt herself moving, being dragged through the opening by a pair of metal hooves. The creature she had seen receded into the distance, and she watched as the shipping crate and all its contents were torn apart into individual components and vanished. It followed her as she left, its luminescent eyes watching- -and yet, somehow, Rainbow Dash knew that the creature was blind.

Proctor finally pulled Rainbow Dash onto the deck outside, and attempted to seal the hole he had created- -and failed. It was growing much larger, actually, even after his hard-light dissipated. The airship had started to tear itself in half, using Proctor’s gap as a breaking point.

“There you are,” said Five as Rainbow Dash was set down next to her.

“Five!” said Rainbow Dash. “Where were you- -”

“No time now,” said Gell. “Thing crashing- -fire, breaking, pain. Time to go.”

“Right!” said Proctor_Dash, extending his hard-light wings and bounding to the railing. The ship had fallen below the main portion of the storm, and the ground was no distantly visible. As Proctor looked down, his wings suddenly clamped to his sides.

“Eep,” said Proctor_Shy.

“Come on!” said Gell. “You even have wings!”

“Yes, but- -that’s too far! Flutershy had problems with heights- -and performance anxiety!”

“By all that takes it in the plot,” said Gell, picking up Proctor. “Wow. You are heavy.” She stepped over the rail.

“WAIT! You don’t have wiiiiiinnnnggggsss…”

Proctor_Shy’s voice trailed off as he was carried over the edge by Gell.

“Is she- -”

“Demon. Equidroid. Not damaged by sudden impacts.”

“Oh,” said Rainbow Dash. She fluttered her wings and lifted herself into the air. “I can take you down, too- -”

“No need,” said Five, spreading her own wings. “I already have these.”

“Oh,” said Rainbow Dash. “I keep forgetting that.”

They both passed over the side, and Rainbow Dash looked back once more, fully expecting to see a pair of strange eye standing at the railing, watching. There were none, though. Instead, she focused on her descend through the blowing snow. It was not easy, but she had been trained well for landings in rough weather.

Beside her, Five was descending rapidly. Her leathery wings produced an entirely different set of aerodynamics, but she seemed to be faring well, even if she was more falling than flying. From above, a streak of light dropped through the snow, and Philomena swirled through the air as she joined Five in her descent.

Snowstorms were their own type of challenge. There was almost no visibility, and the ground was the same color as the sky. Without landing lights, a landing was actually somewhat dangerous- -but Five seemed to know what she was doing. Rainbow Dash fell into formation with Five, into the wingpony position that she was so familiar with.

Philomena swooped forward, and then up. Five descended against the snowy ground, her hoofs crushing into the snow. Rainbow Dash landed beside her. She was not sure where they were; it was impossible to see much of anything beside the snow pouring through the air. There was almost no light, save for an almost imperceptible luminescence of the snow and from Philomena, who was circling around them.

“Gell,” said Five, annoyed. “Where are you?”

“Down here,” said Gell. Rainbow Dash followed the voice, and found Gell hauling Proctor out of a large crater.

“How did you get down there?” asked Rainbow Dash, reaching down to help Gell out.

“Two and a half tons of demon pony and four tons of robot hitting the snow? Yeah. Holes happen.”

Rainbow Dash finished “helping” Gell out of the hole, and Gell set Proctor down onto the snow. Something felt strange, though. Rainbow Dash looked around, wondering if perhaps there was some familiarity to this bleak and frozen landscape. Then she remembered: it was not the landscape that concerned her, but something that was missing.

“Brown!” she cried. “Where is Brown?!”

“Probably burned up on that wreck,” said Five, pointing upward to the flaming and fragmenting glow high in the clouds above them. “No real loss.”

“I have to go back!” cried Rainbow Dash, spreading her wings. “Maybe the Pegasi- -”

Before she could finish her sentence, something appeared through the snow above, something flaming and falling quickly. It hit the ground near them with a loud thump and a puff of snow, imbedding itself in a snow dune thirty feet from them.

Other debris was falling, but Rainbow Dash raced toward that one particular piece. She was holding her breath, not sure what she was going to find- -but knowing that it would almost certainly not be good.

She landed in the snow and looked down into the hole that had formed. In the center of it was a slightly charred fluffy brown sphere. As Rainbow Dash watched, the sphere uncurled. Brown’s head appeared on one end.

“Hmm,” he said. “It appears that I am indeed fireproof. Mostly.”

“Brown,” said Rainbow Dash. “Are you okay, I mean, you just fell like- -seven hundred, eight hundred feet- -”

“Yeah, and so did I,” said Gell, walking over.

“You’re a demon,” said Rainbow Dash. “He’s just a pony.”

“Just indeed,” said Brown, extinguishing the parts of his fur that were still burning and climbing out of the hole. “Even if my bone density is eight times that of you far weaker ponies.”

“Hey!” said Rainbow Dash. “Who are you calling weak?”

Brown’s eyes widened, as if Rainbow Dash’s reaction had been unexpected. “It’s not that you can help with your genetic weakness. If you had durable bones, you would be too heavy to fly.”

“I’m about to show you a durable bone.”

Proctor_Dash, who had mostly sunk in the snow dune, snorted loudly. It was an odd sound coming from a pony that had no real mouth, nose, or respiratory system, but Rainbow Dash knew what that sound meant, and she blushed profusely.

“Move, now!” said Brown suddenly. He moved rapidly, his body extending as he sprung forward. Rainbow Dash did not have a chance to dodge, and she was pushed backward into the snow.

“What the buck! Get off me, you brown colored- -” before she could think of a word to call him, she saw a large, flaming chunk of airship land where she had been standing.

“Move!” ordered Brown.

More pieces were falling around them, and Rainbow Dash started to fly back to where Five was standing and calmly watching the debris fall from outside its range. Brown and Gell both followed, with Brown moving surprisingly quickly through the snow in a series of leaps. They were followed by Proctor, who pranced slowly, the debris deflected by the hard-light surface that he had projected over himself.

Above them, the airship had finally broken apart. With the engines completely failed, the pieces fell rapidly and forward, driven by the inertia of its course. Even through the s now, it was possible to see the fiery main body of the wreck descending in sharp arc into the distance, and to hear the deafening explosions as whatever was in it finally detonated.

“Wow,” said Pinkie_Proctor. “Why do they always make airships out of the most flammable possible material?”

Rainbow Dash did not answer. Instead, she looked at the still flaming debris field before them. It had been an impressive sight to watch it come down, but it had been horrible. She knew fully well that the Pegasus nomads had not been able to get everypony out, and that so many must have died in the fires early on. A great many ponies had just died, and she had not been able to save them. Ponies, and one other creature- -one that was not a pony.

Then one of the pieces of debris moved. It was thrown aside and into the distance like a toy. Through the snow, Rainbow Dash saw the silhouette of a tall figure rise. Then the light of two glowing eyes cut through the snowstorm.

“What is that?” said Five, suddenly seeming agitated. “Gell, what is that thing?”

“I have no idea,” said Gell, taking a defensive stance in front of Rainbow Dash, joined by Brown.

“I don’t like this,” said Five. She reached around her body, preparing to draw her gun if it was needed.

The creature stood still for a moment, and then it began walking toward them- -or, as Rainbow Dash knew, toward her.

“Now, ah don’t mean to be any kind ah worriwort, here,” said Proctor_Jack, “but whatever that thing there is, it’s leakin energy worse than the farm septic tanhk. So ahm gonna go over here…”

“Or…” said Proctor_Dash, rubbing his hooves together.

“Don’t,” said Five, her voice harsh and serious. “Do not engage. Protect Rainbow Dash.”

“I don’t think- -I don’t think it wants to hurt me,” said Rainbow Dash, although the others seemed unconvinced.

The creature came into visual view, the wind and snow pouring around its body. It walked strangely, as though it were not familiar with its body- -but it moved quickly. Then it paused, and stared down at Rainbow Dash.

“You will not hurt her!” said Brown, his fur bristling.

The creature ignored him. It said nothing. Instead, it simply started moving again, walking past them. It did not look back, and within seconds it had faded from sight into the blizzard. When it was gone, Rainbow Dash realized just how fast her heart was pounding.

“What the There?” demanded Gell. “I mean, what the There was that thing?”

“I think it is what took down the airship,” said Rainbow Dash.

“Um, hey,” said Twilight_Proctor. “Did you guys notice that it didn’t leave any footprints?”

They all looked down, save for Five, who was looking into the distance. Indeed, the creature had left no footprints, as though it were weightless.

“Five, what’s wrong?” said Gell.

“Nothing,” said Five, returning to the group. “No time to worry about…that. Our present situation demands more immediate action to resolve pressing threats.”

“More pressing than that?” asked Proctor_Jack.

Five pointed at Rainbow Dash. “Your wings.”

Rainbow Dash looked down to where Five was pointed, and she saw that her wings were shaking badly. In fact, her whole body was. In her fear, she had not noticed how cold it was.

“That’s not good,” said Gell.

“I’m fine,” said Rainbow Dash, trying to control the shaking. The roaring wind was not helping. Her hooves and the tips of her wings were already starting to hurt. Every breath she took made her snout hurt and her throat taste like blood.

“No, you are not,” said Five. “The current temperature is well below freezing. And by freezing, I mean the freezing point of blood. Unprotected, you will not survive long.”

“I’ve dealt with worse,” said Rainbow Dash, pumping her wings. Flight, however, proved difficult- -not only because of the spreading numbness of her wings, but because of the strong wind.

“Brown,” said Five. “Handle this.”

“Yes, Commander.”

Rainbow Dash felt herself being picked up from behind

“Hey!” she cried, resisting as Brown placed her onto his back. Upon contact with his thick fur, though, she almost seemed to sink into it. The feelings of coldness started to vanish, and Rainbow Dash was surprised by how warm he was- -and by how small his body actually was. It had not been possible for her to tell before, because of all his fluff, but now that her legs were on his sides and she was on his back, she could feel the part of him that was pony instead of hair. He was barely half the size of a normal pony.

“I don’t like this,” said Rainbow Dash. She tried to pull herself out, but the fluff was surprisingly adhesive, as if every hair were holding her in place.

“I don’t either,” said Gell.

“It’s better than dying,” said Five.

“What about you?” asked Proctor_Dash. “You’re an organic too.”

“This body is already doomed. No reason to bother protecting it. My larger concern is to where exactly we are.” She held up one of her hooves and looked down at a hologram that appeared from her gauntlet. “And that did not help. Too much atmospheric interference.”

A sound filled the air around them, something like a distant whiney that came from no particular direction. All of them looked up, as though they would be able to see the source of the long, somber note that filled the snowy air.

“Sky-brothers,” said Brown, his expression hardening. Rainbow Dash felt his body tense. Even though he was small, he was surprisingly muscular.

“Widnigos,” said Five. She closed her hologram and stamped her hoof into the ground. “My day just keeps getting better and better, does it not?”

“Windigos are a misunderstood creature,” said Proctor_Shy. “However…we should probably go.”

“And, ideally, not that way,” said Gell, pointing in the direction that the bipedal creature had gone.

“Agreed,” said Five.

Chapter 46: Necropolis

View Online

“This is totally embarrassing,” muttered Rainbow Dash.

“Indeed,” said Brown. “But these are my orders.”

Rainbow Dash sighed. She knew that Brown was right, and by extension, that Five was right. It was probably possible for her to extricate herself from Brown’s fluff, but if she did, she would just get cold. In the Wonderbolts, she had always been warned about the dangers of low-temperatures, and what effect they could have on flight. There were even specialized garments designed for flights in winter climates. Unfortunately, Rainbow Dash had none of those. She was naked.

“And, what, you’re not cold?” she asked.

“No,” said Brown, as though it were obvious. “Of course not. These temperatures are actually quite comfortable for me.”

“The Exmoori are derived from a cold locale,” said Five, waking beside them. Even though she claimed not to be cold, her motions were starting to slow. Even with Philomena flying over her, casting a glow of flaming warmth, it was clear that Five was starting to enter a hypothermic state. The countless hours they had spent wandering through the empty, bleak landscape were taking their toll on her. Her hooves had started to grow pale, and Rainbow Dash knew the signs of frostbite well enough to know that Five’s legs and wings were both severely afflicted. “Exmoor was founded on a glacier in the farthest north parts of Hyperborea. Even farther than YakYakistan.”

“‘Was’?” asked Brown.
` Five did not respond. She had gone back to adjusting the wheel-shaped device that she used to open the Pocket. For some reason, it seemed, she was unable to open it. Rainbow Dash did not fully understand why, but it apparently had something to do with a failure to find a connection.

“I don’t feel cold at all either,” said Pinkie_Proctor, whose tungsten body had sunk deep into the snow, leaving only his head protruding. “Of course, I’m a walking nuke. That said, I’d love to warm you all up…but it runs on cold fusion, so that won’t help much. But then I guess that doesn’t explain why I’m so warm.”

“I’m not cold,” said Five. “By the Soth…I hate freezing to death. Especially now. One of my least favorite ways to go.”

“I thought immolation was your least favorite,” said Gell.

“At least it’s over quick,” muttered Five. “And still no signal!”

Rainbow Dash turned toward Gell. “And you’re not cold?”

“Aww, thanks for your concern, Dashie. But no. I’m a demon. Temperature resistance comes with the territory. Actually, this isn’t even that bad. Half of Tartarus is colder as…well, Tartarus.”

“I do not even know how we arrived here- -the freighter’s itinerary does not mention any passage over cold zones,” said Five. “I don’t even know why I agreed to this.”

“Because you wanted to find Fluttershy,” said Pinkie_Proctor.

Rainbow Dash turned so sharply that she momentarily unbalanced Brown. “Wait- -what did you just say?”

“Stop talking,” groaned Five. “I have the worst headache.” She dropped down into the snow.

“Going to sleep, An?” chuckled Gell.

“Not yet,” said Five, although she sounded incredibly tired. It frightened Rainbow Dash. She was aware, at least to some extent, that for some reason Five could not die, at least not easily, but watching her slowly start to fail was heartbreaking. Even if she would eventually heal, Rainbow Dash got the impression that dying was still painful.

Five removed her gun from under her wing and pointed it into the distance. A small scope appeared over it, and she looked through.

“As I….suspected. There’s something ahead. A structure.”

“A structure?” said Proctor_Rarity. “Who would build anything out here? I mean, the climate is simply dreadful.”

“Don’t care,” said Five. “But I will not freeze solid. Not now.”

“Commander,” said Brown as Five struggled to stand. “There is more room here for you. I can keep you warm.”

“I don’t need your help, Brown. I need the cold. It slows the decay.”

Rainbow Dash did not know what she meant by that, but she could see the structure in the distance as well. She hoped for Five’s sake that it was warm inside.

They continued to trudge through the snow, and the wind- -or at least four of them did. Rainbow Dash felt terrible relying on Brown to carry her, as though she were too weak to support herself, especially while the others had to be cold. Eventually, she could not take it anymore.

“That’s it,” she said, spreading her wings and pulling herself out of Brown’s fluff. The air immediately felt cold around her, and it was unpleasant, but not nearly as unpleasant as seeming like a weakling in front of the others.

“Dashie, get back in there,” said Gell. “You’ll freeze to death out here.”

“I’m just going to scout ahead,” replied Rainbow Dash. “Maybe there’s somepony inside.”

“I’m going with you,” said Proctor_Dash, spreading his wings and pulling himself out of the snow.

“Fine,” said Rainbow Dash. “Brown, tail them.”

“Subtle,” said Proctor_Dash.

“Yes, my Commander,” said Brown.

Rainbow Dash sprung forward, driving herself through the air with all her might. The motion of her wings was powerful, not just for motion but for providing her body with precious heat. Outside of Brown’s fur, the only way for her to survive was to keep moving.

Proctor followed beside her. Although he had “wings”, they seemed oddly immobile. He just held them out at his sides, and moved forward with a strange humming sound. If Gell was right, though, it was amazing any kind of wings could hold him at all considering his weight.

Beneath them, Brown executed his orders and followed them. Rainbow Dash had initially tried to outpace him, but he was surprisingly fast through the snow, moving with rabbit-like bounds that kept the snow from dragging on his legs. To Rainbow Dash’s chagrin, he managed to keep up.

The shape ahead of them began to resolve more clearly into view. It was tall, like a building, but the shape seemed strange. When Rainbow Dash finally got close enough, she realized why.

It was not a building at all, at least in the traditional sense. Instead, it was a large pinkish shard of crystal. Rainbow Dash circled around it, and saw the window and door cut into it. It was a dwelling, it seemed.
Rainbow Dash circled around the structure several more times, noting the facets and the color. Something about it seemed oddly familiar. Then, as she rejoined Proctor and Brown, she remembered.

“I know where I am!” she said, smiling as she landed in the snow.

“No,” whispered a Five. Rainbow Dash turned to see Five emerging from the snow, only to step back. She sounded strange, and there was a look of pure panic on her face. “No no no no NO NO NO!” She jumped back behind Gell and projected several holograms. “We can’t be- -we can’t be there! How did we not get shot down?! Not here, anywhere but here!”

Rainbow Dash did not understand why Five was so frightened. She walked over to Five, who was shaking with more than cold, her eyes fliting rapidly between the holograms.

“Five, what’s wrong?”

“Residual Order fallout,” she said. “Why didn’t I sense it? Why didn’t I check?! Not good, not good, not good…by all that is unholy, why here?!”

“Um, An,” said Gell, who had been walking with her. “You’re kind of freaking out.”

“Yeah,” said Rainbow Dash. “I know where we are. This is the Crystal Empire- -”

“Do you think I don’t know that?!” screamed Five, putting her hooves on Rainbow Dash’s shoulders. For a moment, Rainbow Dash looked into her eyes, and saw that, for the first time since she had known her, Five truly was afraid.

“So we’re not lost,” said Rainbow Dash, annoyed. “I mean, we just need find somepony in there…hey, Cadence was an alicorn. Maybe she’s still alive in there.”

Five blinked. “Either you have the worst sense of humor or you are thicker than even I predicted. Cadence has been dead for centuries! Nopony has lived in the Crystal Empire for centuries! No pony can! It’s a Level L quarantine zone!”

“Buck me,” said Gell, her expression dropping. At first, she seemed to be amused by Five’s antics. Now, she actually seemed to be joining in on Five’s fear.”

“Commander, what is the problem?” asked Brown.

“A Level L quarantine,” said Twilight_Proctor, cheerfully, as though reading from a book, “is an area of land that has been designated by the Thebean High Government as off-limits to all ponies, non-ponies, and machines indefinably. Trespass is punishable by immediate execution.” He paused. “Oh. That is kind of scary.”

“Wait,” said Rainbow Dash. “So you’re afraid Thebe is going to, what, exactly?”

“Thebe?” spat Five. “Thebe? I don’t care about her! I care about whatever is here!” She tried to calm herself. “About three hundred seventy five years ago, there was a war, or a battle. Nobody knows what happened, because there were no survivors, save for Blackened Shield, and he took it to his grave. Everypony died. Princess Cadence was killed. The Empire was lost. Celestia herself instituted the first quarantine!”

“That’s it,” said Gell, looking up at the crystal building. “I’m uncomfortable. I’m getting my gun.” She extended one of her cloven hooves in front of her.

“No, you idiot!” screamed Five.

It was too late to stop her. Gell engaged the spell, and a pentagram of yellow light appeared over her hoof. Instead of a gun appearing, though, the pentagram exploded violently, causing Gell to shout in surprise. As she did, the fragments of the pentagram linked to something else, to a system that seemed to have been touching it through a number of formerly invisible root-like tendrils.

The lines to the pentagram erupted in violet light, carrying the signal deep into the snow as they vanished. Beneath the group of ponies, wide violet lines in the snow glowed, the light sparking through the ground around them, forming a tiny part of a vast symbol. The energy passed into the violet inscription and traveled swiftly toward the city. As it did, the air and land seemed to vibrate in unison.

Rainbow Dash felt a sudden surge in the air, something that felt paradoxically like a silent explosion. The storm around them seemed to slow, and in the distance the remnants of the Crystal Empire became visible, if only as silhouettes in the heavily falling but now windless, silent snow. Rainbow Dash shivered, and not just because of the cold. She had visited the Crystal Empire a number of times, and every time, it had always been the same: a glowing, warm land in the center of a vast artic wasteland. Now, though, even though the city and the tall palace in the center were both visible, it was clear that most of it was buried under eternal frost.

“What the There was that?” said Gell. The slight fear in her voice caused Rainbow Dash to nearly shudder. Both her and Gell seemed to be sensing the same thing, the same electrical, magical charge in the air.

“That was a seal,” said Five, slowly. “A dimensional seal. With it active, we cannot reach the Pocket.”

“Is it standard procedure to seal an L quarantine?” asked Gell, apparently already knowing the answer.

“No,” said Five, shaking her head. “No, it is not. I think we just triggered something…”

“Something what?” said Rainbow Dash. “Come on, Five, you’re scaring me.”

“Something from before the war.”

“Like what?”

“Like that,” growled Brown, staring into the distance.

Rainbow Dash looked to where he was staring. At first she saw nothing, and heard nothing. The snow was silent, and all she could see were the flakes pouring downward. Then she saw the figures of ponies walking toward them.

At first, Rainbow Dash smiled, and was about to jump into the air to greet them. In her mind, she saw them as the survivors of the Crystal Empire, as ponies who might have a warm fire, or remember what had happened to her friend Cadence.

Something stopped her, though. Something felt wrong. She did not know why, exactly, but something deep within her told her to be afraid. Something about the way they moved, the way they were- -it seemed wrong.

As she watched, more appeared, resolving from the snowstorm. Others, it seemed, were pulling themselves from the snow that had already fallen. Most walked, but some did not. Instead, they dragged themselves across the frozen surface.

Then they got close enough to see, and Rainbow Dash suddenly felt far colder than the eternal winter could ever make her feel. The figures approaching them slowly through the snow were indeed ponies- -but they were not survivors.

The ponies that approached them- -if they could even be called that- -were dressed in heavy armor, much of it rusted and corroded. At least, Rainbow Dash initially took it for armor. When several more of them got closer, however, she realized that it was really something different. It was clear that they were more machine than pony, animated by the same cybernetics that kept her left limbs functional.

Parts of their bodies were exposed, though, and that was what terrified Rainbow Dash. Most of them had little if any skin; instead, they stared forward from empty eye sockets in grinning skulls. Those that did have remnants of faces or legs or bodies had sunken, shriveled, gray skin- -but almost all of it was wrong, on arms and appendages that had been grafted to the sides of their bodies or long-broken wings that.

Many of them bore weapons. Some carried long, pitted swords in their extraneous arms, while others toted rifles of a bizarre design. Some of the larger ponies- -ponies with far too many joints to be properly given that title- -bore cannons on their backs.

“I’m not getting a mental reading on any of them,” said Five. “We need to get out of here- -now.”

She turned around, as did the rest of them, prepared for a “tactical retreat” at the fastest possible speed- -only to find more of the damaged, alien ponies approaching from behind them.

Rainbow Dash heard a sound behind her. It was quiet, almost like a puff of air whispered into her ear. It was followed by a sudden groan, and a sound of something hitting the snow. Rainbow Dash turned quickly toward the second set of sounds, and saw Brown on his side, clutching one of his forelegs. The snow beneith him had been stained crimson.

“Into the building, now!” he ordered, pointing.

Five, with Philomena standing on her back, immediately obeyed the suggestion. Gell followed as more shots erupted, shielding Five with her body as more shots erupted from the crowd. Rainbow Dash, however, flew the opposite direction, toward Brown.

“No!” he yelled, trying to wave her away. As he did, Rainbow Dash felt her stomach turn. His right front leg was lying severed in the snow beside him. “Leave me!”

“Not a chance!” said Rainbow Dash, picking him up and dragging him as quickly as she could toward the open door of the crystal house. “You may be a jerk, but you’re not gonna die like this!”
Brown was surprisingly heavy, but Rainbow Dash was strong, and she managed to get him into the building. Gell slammed the rotted wooden door closed behind them, as though it would do anything to help them.

Rainbow Dash and Brown fell against a wall near a window, where Five was already waiting, her shaking hooves trying to operate her gun. Gell was behind a nearby wall, and Proctor, who apparently had the idea to get into the building long before the rest of them, was cowering under some moldy blankets.

“Satin bless it,” said Gell, looking down at her armor. She winced, and Rainbow Dash was surprised to see several large holes melted into it. They were all smoking, and from Gell’s pained expression it was clear that the shots had gone clean through and entered her body. “What the There are they shooting us with?!”

“Am…am dummeh fwuffeh now,” muttered Brown. He was shaking, and Rainbow Dash realized that she was still holding onto him.

“Let me see it,” she said. “Five, do you have first aid?”

Five said nothing, but started slamming her hoof into her gun.

“Five!”

“Why in the name of the eternal Dark