Virga

by Dave Bryant

First published

Canterlot is burning. Enemy troops fan out across the land. Within days—even hours—they may sack Twilight’s tower. What if they discover the portal and, even worse, how to use it? Sunset Shimmer, Cookie Pusher, and Rose Brass can’t let that happen.

Sunset paused on the high balcony of Princess Twilight’s empty tower, catching her breath after climbing all those stairs from the library. Everypony was away setting up the Friendship Festival; the journal had been buzzing almost constantly with Twilight’s hastily scribbled one-line updates, ecstatic and anxious—until a couple of hours ago. The longer the sudden silence lasted, the more concerned Sunset became, until she hopped through the portal to see what was up. Her alicorn glowed as she fiddled Twi’s telescope into position for a look at the distant city clinging to the mountainside.

Canterlot was burning.

Prologue • The graduate, the chargé, and the captain

View Online

“Sunset, slow down,” the masculine baritone interrupted firmly with a mix of exasperation and concern. “Now. Take a deep breath. Start at the beginning and go step by step, okay?”

The voice didn’t break in again through the ensuing explanation, but when the flood of words finally trickled into silence, a sigh was audible. “You’re right; that doesn’t sound good.” After a moment the speaker added with a glint of his normal humor, “You did the right thing getting ahold of me—but then, who else could you call about something like this? Listen, I need to fire off a flash alert and grab a few things, but after that I’ll head right down and meet you there.”


It took Sunset Shimmer’s trembling hand two tries to hit the disconnect button on her phone’s screen; the recipient number and legend Cookie Pusher disappeared. The young woman turned to face the street in front of the high school from which she and her friends recently graduated, just before the summer break now nearing its end. Her shoulders fell back against the stone plinth that, in its opposite face, concealed the magical gateway by which she had returned from another world. She closed her eyes and tried again to master her breathing, still shaken by the glimpse in Princess Twilight’s telescope of distant Canterlot burning under a pall of smoke through which strange airships circled.

Who else could you call about something like this? The words popped back into her head, and her eyes popped open in response. There was one other person she could call. She raised the phone again and, after a moment to will steadiness into her fingers, flicked through her contact list to find a number she’d used only a few times. When the entry labeled Rose Brass scrolled into view, her finger stabbed at it urgently.


“Sunset. It’s been a while.” The feminine voice, possibly a bit deeper even than the previous fellow’s, was warm but noncommittal. “Don’t tell me, let me guess: you’re calling in that favor I promised when we first met.”

This time the account went more smoothly thanks to the previous rehearsals, but took nearly as long thanks to the additional details. “That’s a pretty big favor,” came the response in an even tone. “Are you absolutely sure about this?”

Passion and brevity were as convincing as the reply itself. There was a long pause, then, “All right. I need to make some calls and pick up some gear first. Canterlot High School, right?”


A nondescript white panel van pulled to the curb before the plaza fronting the dome-topped building. From the front passenger seat emerged a figure of imposing height clad in a pouch-festooned military load-carrying vest over T-shirt, BDU pants, and tactical boots, all of them in desert tan. Even this outlandish ensemble, however, was less startling than the woman in her mid-forties who wore it. Buzz-cut platinum blonde hair surmounted a bronze face half-covered with scars, and a dun eyepatch, on the left side. Her six-foot-tall body seemed lean but powerful—aside from her right arm, which was missing entirely. In its place she bore a current-generation prosthetic that made no attempt to hide its artificial nature, opting instead for a sleek, streamlined look.

In a few economical motions she pulled a fully loaded field pack from the van’s rear seat, then leaned in to exchange a few muffled words with the half-visible driver, after which she stood again and shut both curbside doors. Without further ado, it pulled away and headed off down the street.

She turned to survey the suburban block where she’d been deposited before advancing toward the shorter, slighter man who already stood on the public sidewalk in front of the schoolyard. “You must be Cookie Pusher. Sunset said you’re with the Foreign Service.”

“Yes. I don’t know you.” Neither voice nor face betrayed any expression; the thirtyish diplomat’s eyes hid behind a pair of glacier glasses. He too wore a nondescript T-shirt, but everything else came from a high-end outdoor supplier rather than military surplus—cargo vest, rugged khaki pants and boots, and the internal-frame pack leaning against his thigh. His complexion was stone gray and his crisp dark hair was short and neat, parted on the side.

“Army Captain Rose Brass, retired.” The tall woman halted and drew herself up, half at attention, before extending her artificial hand. “Currently a youth social worker with Social Services.”

“Ah.” He reached out to shake the offered hand. “You must have been assigned to work with the Dazzlings.”

A faint smile touched the undamaged lips below the scarring. “You’re a sharp one.”

“So I’ve been told. I gather Sunset called you in on this too. I assume you’ve been as fully briefed as I was.”

“Yes.” The single narrow eye glanced around. “Speaking of Sunset—I don’t see her.”

“I’m sure she’ll be here any time now.”

With the loud, sharp clack of a crash bar, one of the school’s front doors burst open. Sunset Shimmer rocketed out of the building and down the stoop toward them, skidding to a stop at the last moment. “You’re both here!” she panted, relief clear in her tone and her face. “Cook, this is Rose. Rose, Cook.” She tugged nervously with one hand on the leather vest that half-covered the vivid T-shirt emblazoned with her roiling-sun mark; the jeans and high-tops below were worn but presentable. Her other hand clutched the straps of a bulging bookbag slung over that shoulder.

“Yes, we just met,” Cook told her drily. “Where were you, might I ask?”

“I was telling Principal Celestia what’s going on and what we’re gonna do. She was handling some last-minute paperwork in her office before the new school year starts.”

Rose frowned. Cook eyed her sidelong and pointed out, “Ms. Celestia has a need to know. She’s responsible for what happens here. Besides, someone else has to have the story, just in case.”

The frown eased but didn’t disappear. “Fine,” Rose said reluctantly. “Now what?”

Sunset squinted up at the afternoon sky fading into evening. “It’s getting late. We need to get moving.” She trotted back around the plinth, then glanced back expectantly. Cook hefted his pack and followed immediately; after a moment Rose did likewise. Sunset drew a breath and reached out to place her palm against the flat stone. A bluish glow washed across the surface around her hand, accompanied by a faint rippling sound.

“Just a minute.” Rose reached inside an oversize add-on pouch clipped near the shoulder of her vest and pulled out a compact service pistol. With brisk practiced motions she put it through a final check—slide, chamber, magazine, safety—before replacing it in its hidden retention holster.

Sunset stared with huge eyes. Cook’s expression was less surprised. “Captain,” he said carefully, “may I remind you carrying a firearm on school grounds is a crime.”

Rose gave him a level look. “How many laws are we breaking, Mister Diplomat?”

Cook thought a moment before shrugging. “All of them,” he conceded.

“Right, then. Let’s go.” Rose faced front, bracing herself for a jump into the unknown.

Peparations

View Online

An actinic glare abruptly flooded the expansive library from a flat upright ellipse, which then rippled and ejected first a small avalanche of packs and straps, then three flailing bodies, one after another, to bounce and slide across the polished-stone floor. With an oddly truncated whoosh the harsh light winked out, leaving the echoing room dim and quiet. For a long moment the only sounds were strained breathing and muffled grunts.

A pair of softer glows sputtered to life. “Sunset? Captain Brass?” Cook’s slightly breathless voice called out.

“Yeah,” Sunset called back. “It’s . . . darker in here than I expected.”

Rose’s contribution was a vigorous and inventive string of curses. “You didn’t tell me I’d need motocross armor for that little trip.”

“You’re not hurt, are you?” The will-o’-wisp around Sunset’s alicorn expanded and brightened, resolving a trio of equine silhouettes. The sturdy young unicorn mare herself wore nothing—unlike either of the other two.

Cook had become a unicorn stallion not much larger than she. His clothing was reduced to a dickie-like garment with cargo pockets on the chest, snug buttoned brushguards around forearms and cannons, and hiking boots on all four hooves. His glacier glasses, unchanged other than to accommodate his transformed cranium, hovered in the off-white grip of his levitation, revealing disconcertingly pale eyes. Sunset’s anxious glance flicked past him, seeking the third member of their little party.

Rose was . . . a pegasus mare. A big one. The khaki campaign coverall she wore lacked hoof gloves and splint reinforcing, though grommets and pads for the latter remained. Nailed to her hooves were steel shoes clad with vulcanized rubber. Not surprisingly for a newcomer through the portal, she was turning her head this way and that in self-examination. Her eyepatch, like Cook’s glasses, looked little different; her scars showed bare and pink, lacking any hair. Her mane retained a buzz cut, but her tail was longer.

“I’m fine, I think,” replied the normally self-assured ex-captain in a subdued voice. “But—” Two sound and brawny arms stamped, one after the other. Then she turned, and Sunset caught her breath.

“It’s . . . your wing, Rose,” she explained in a hushed voice. “Your right wing.”

The scarred head whipped around. With an effort Rose spread her wings for the first time, hesitantly, awkwardly, feeling her way into her body’s changes. The left wing was everything it should be, half-pony-length primaries to shame an eagle, secondaries and coverts and auxiliaries, immaculate and gleaming.

The right wing gleamed as well, silver to her body’s brass. After a fashion it was at least as impressive as its mate, for every visible bit of it was metal, as finely worked as a grandfather clock. “What—?”

“I’m convinced the portal has a mind of its own,” Cook commented in the same dry tone with which he’d greeted Sunset. “It seems to decide how to . . . translate anything traveling through it. Apparently it decided your prosthetic should be an artificial wing.”

Both wings flexed experimentally. “But how does it work?” Bemusement and wonder lurked under the shock in her tones.

“It has to be magical,” Sunset offered uncertainly. “I’m not sure what else it could be.”

“Right now enchanted clockworks are the only way Equestria can produce prosthetics as good as we’re used to back home—but the process is even more difficult and expensive, so they’re pretty rare,” Cook amplified. “This world’s still in the throes of the Industrial Revolution; go back a hundred and thirty or a hundred and forty years and you’d be in the right ball park.”

“Yes, I remember,” Rose noted in an absent tone. “I got a briefing packet when I was assigned to the sirens.”

“Oh!” Sunset straightened. “How are they doing, by the way?”

The smile that lit the equine face was as luminous as it would be on the human face. “Their therapy with Doc W is going slowly, but they’re making progress. Since they aren’t minors any more, they should have been transferred to the young-adult division, but nobody there has a security clearance. Besides, they asked to stay on my client roster instead.”

“Time,” Cook put in diffidently.

Rose’s whole face shifted; suddenly a military officer looked out of the single good eye. “Right. First order of business: we need a look at Canterlot.”

“Uh—this way.” Sunset raised an arm in a sweeping gesture toward one of the library’s green-glazed doors.


Rose stared into the eyepiece of the telescope still pointing across the fertile green valley toward the axe-cleft pass that cradled Canterlot. The other two stood silently behind her on the high balcony of Princess Twilight’s strange residence; neither was in the mood for small talk after their own peeks through the brass tube’s lenses.

“Mister Cook.” The command voice was crisp and firm. “Take notes.” One of her ears flicked back, imprinted reflexes taking care of what her conscious mind was too preoccupied to interfere with. The faint chimes of spellcasting rang as Cook obediently levitated a clipboard and fountain pen liberated from the study downstairs; sheets of stiff watermarked paper fluttered in the slight breeze before his glow smoothed them down again.

Drawing on her training and experience, Rose outlined in short declarative sentences what she could see and interpret of the fighting—and fires—raging among the streets and buildings of the embattled city. “The Guard’s getting hammered,” she concluded. “My guess is they were in barracks and totally surprised when this went down. Looks like squads or individual guns—artillery, that is—got into action here and there, but without support, they aren’t lasting very long. Those airships are nailing any tube and crew that gets off a shot. I don’t see any gasbag wreckage, and with all that smoke it’s hard to tell how many the enemy brought to the party. I’d say the city has another hour or so before someone there surrenders.”

Sunset hiccuped on a sob. Cook let out a breath, then asked quietly, “Anything identifiable, Captain?”

“I’m not sure,” Rose replied. “I can see some sort of roundel on the airship envelopes—a pair of light-blue lightning bolts. The left one is down and slightly left, then horizontally right, then straight down; the right one is a mirror-image. Either of you recognize that?” Sunset and Cook both denied any knowledge of the odd insigne.

“Okay. I don’t think we can get anything more at this point.” Rose turned away from the telescope to face the unicorns. “Second order of business: we need to get that information back through the portal. Mister Cook, can anyone else make heads or tails of those notes?”

“They’re in shorthand, so it might take a bit of time to find someone who can read them, but I did my best to make them neat and tidy.” Cook’s tone was precise and unwontedly sober.

“Good.” Rose started back for the stairs at a brisk walk. “Sunset, will Principal Celestia still be on campus?”

“I think so.” Sunset’s voice was thick.

“Let’s hope so. We’ll wrap the sheets around something, tie up the whole packet with parcel twine, and throw it back through.”


A sizable rock, stealthily levitated through a back window from the grounds outside, was rinsed off and dried hastily in the kitchen. Sunset wrapped the papers and twine around it, pausing occasionally to sniffle and wipe her eyes. Cook took over levitating the package as they made their way back to the library.

“Do we just throw it?” Rose asked dubiously as she looked over the mirror and associated contraptions.

“It’s . . . kind of like a computer in sleep mode,” Sunset replied. “I think that might work, but touching the mirror first always seems like a better idea.”

Cook did just that, stepping up the mirror’s dais and extending an arm to press his booted hoof against its surface. A magenta swirl of light faded in, displacing their reflections. He stepped back again and, with a toss of his head, flung his burden at the portal, letting his levitation lapse at the last moment. The paper-wrapped stone vanished and the mirror once more reverted to a disarming quiescence.

He turned back and stepped down. “All we can do is hope. Or pray, if you do that.”

Rose drew in a breath. “Third order of business: now that we’ve sent back all the intelligence we can, we have to put the portal out of commission.”

“What?” Sunset shrieked. Cook winced but held his peace.

“Sunset.” Rose’s tone was patient. “Think. The enemy is about to take the capital. Their next step is to secure and consolidate. How long will it be before troops are here in Ponyville? How long will it take them to sack this place? Once they have, how long will it take them to figure out the portal? They probably couldn’t mount any kind of serious operations through it, but do you want to see Canterlot High become a literal battleground? What if they realize they could send agents provocateur through it instead?”

“We can—we can hold Twilight’s castle.” Desperation was clear in Sunset’s voice and stance.

“It’s not a castle.” Rose’s manner was unyielding. “It has no curtain walls, no enceinte, no baileys, not even a motte or a palisade. At most it’s a tower house, and not a well-fortified one. How long do you think a high-school graduate, a diplomat, and a half-crippled army captain could defend it against infantry battalions, airships, and high-velocity cannon, let alone magic? We don’t have the authority to commandeer a Guard detachment, assuming there’s any around here, and we don’t have the moral right to talk any townsfolk into reinforcing us with a few muskets and shotguns.”

“We don’t need to destroy the mirror,” Cook’s calm voice broke in. Both the mares looked over at him; he in turn was examining the mechanisms half-surrounding the tall glass and dais.

“Explain,” Rose ordered in a flat tone.

“What makes the mirror interesting to a potential investigator are all the gizmos and doohickeys attached to it.” He waved an arm at the arcane addenda. “Clear those away and move the mirror somewhere innocuous, and it’s part of the scenery.” His eyes narrowed. “Without them the mirror won’t work as a portal for another . . . six months or so, if I remember correctly. With luck, nobody would notice anything unusual for the three days the portal would be open. Then it would close for another twenty-nine months.”

“And what about those gizmos and doohickeys?” Rose was frankly doubtful.

“We . . . we put them in Twilight’s study.” Sunset still sounded unsteady, but she frowned in concentration. “She’s already got a bunch of junk in there.”

“Okay, that might work,” Rose allowed, having seen that disaster area for herself. “But I’d want some insurance.”

“We pull the spark plugs and take them with us,” Cook said with a shrug of the withers.

“The journal,” said Sunset. “That and, uh, Twilight’s notes on the portal. Without those, they can’t put it back together, and even if they do, they can’t make it work.”

“Then we refugee out,” Cook added. “We sure can’t stay here, and once we disable the portal, we can’t go back home through it.”

“Mister Cook—” Rose paused and sighed. “No, you’re right. Both of you. Let’s set it up.”


They worked as quickly as they could. The oncoming evening darkness forced them to light a few gas lamps in the library, but otherwise they relied on as little illumination as possible. As far as anypony outside knew, the extruded crystalline tower was deserted, all its inhabitants having decamped to Canterlot for the aborted Friendship Festival. None of the trio wanted lit-up windows to betray any hint otherwise and thereby attract undesired attention, either from the growing panic in the neighboring town or from the enemy airships beginning to peel off from their orbits over the vanquished city.

Sunset dismantled Twilight’s ingenious jury-rigs, sorting the parts on the floor around the mirror’s base. Cook made round trips to the study and back, placing those parts on, in, under, or around, as seemed appropriate. When he discovered a bin, drawer, or cabinet of similar parts, he took the opportunity to emulate the purloined letter. Rose made a swift tour of the whole structure, securing every exterior door and window she was able to find. In the process she discovered she could fly, if clumsily, though how much was beginner’s fumbling and how much was impairment from her physical damage wasn’t clear even to her.

Eventually they were ready for the final step. “All right, where do we put it?” Rose asked as they stood and gazed up at the now unsuspicious-looking mirror.

“The map room,” Sunset finally said.

Cook cocked his head. “It’s too grand for any of the private spaces except possibly Twilight’s suite, and I don’t think we have the time and energy to haul it up there. It would be out of place in any of the working areas like the kitchen. I concur.”

Rose nodded. “How do we do this, then?”

In the end, Rose pushed the unwieldy furnishing along, forehooves on the first step of the dais and wings extended for balance. The unicorns levitated the peculiar rollers used as part of the modifications, placing them in front of the mirror and taking them up as it moved past. Maneuvering the whole cavalcade down the corridor, across the vast chamber with its thrones and gigantic round table, and to the destination at right angles to the main door, took as long as stripping off Twilight’s alterations.

Afterward they stood catching their breath. Sunset stared at the table, mesmerized by the ghostly map projected on it, active and in its own inscrutable way agitated. Canterlot lay dark and foreboding. The symbol Rose had seen on the airships rotated around its vertical axis above the blighted spot. Murky tendrils already were visible, reaching out along the roads, railroad tracks, and even as the crow—or airship—flew. One was creeping toward Ponyville, the nearest settlement of any real size. “Cook? Rose? I . . . don’t think we have a lot of time.”

Rose took one look and swore briefly. “Grab your bags, both of you.”

Flight

View Online

Sunset squinted in concentration, her nose and the tip of her glowing alicorn nearly pressed against the all-but-opaque green glass; the latch inside the closed window fell and locked with a clunk. Her companions already were lifting their packs from the pile on the grass at the back of the tower, lobbed out the ground-floor window before the three of them followed.

Rose peered suspiciously and grumbled, “I suppose this is more of the portal’s doing.” Load vest and pack had become a harness bearing satchels in fore-and-aft pairs designed to rest against shoulders and haunches, leaving barrel and wings unobstructed; tie-downs held rolled gear along the spine and an extra pouch was clipped to the chest strap.

Cook glanced over as he worked his shoulders and hips. “That’s current Guard issue. State of the art for Equestria. You should be flattered.” His internal-frame pack was now a network of girth and chest straps supporting a series of flap-closed pouches arching over his back, from one side of his barrel to the other, as if a giant horseshoe straddled his midsection.

“You’re a smart aleck, you know that?” Rose shook her head and started to shuffle her body carefully into the harness as Sunset moved to retrieve her own day panniers.


The first explosions lit Ponyville a bare minute later. They hurried to finish settling their baggage in place, then circled the tower’s far side to crouch by the front stoop and peer over it toward the small hamlet.

A looming underlit shape in the night sky was dropping what had to be small bombs, though not a great many. The usual horrific cacophany accompanied the blasts—shouts and screams, the drum of hoofbeats, the groan and crash of collapsing structures. A few smaller motes circled the airship in a hopeless exchange of fire, civilian small arms against military volley guns. Sunset gasped.

Rose hissed something pungent, then twitched her head toward the airship and asked, “What are they hitting?”

“The train station, I think,” Sunset whispered uncertainly.

“Yes,” Cook confirmed. “This is the last stop before Canterlot.”

Rose nodded sharply. “Cut the rail line, make it harder for relief expeditions. We have to get out of here—now. Where do we go?”

“I—I’m not sure.” Sunset looked around blindly, night vision destroyed by the blooms of fire. “I don’t know the area around Ponyville that well.”

“The Everfree Forest,” Cook put in. “It can be dangerous, but this—” He waved an arm at the uneven battle shaping up across the town.

“Devil and the deep blue sea,” Rose muttered.


Their wary progress across the open rolling land between the tower and the forest, lit only by the flames licking up from bombed buildings a half-mile or more away, became a slow-motion nightmare. Despite those blazes, damage seemed less, proportionate to Canterlot—but hulking silhouettes with long arms rappelled down from the gondola hanging below the huge envelope, presumably to finish the job of securing the town.

Some fell to sporadic long-arm fire from the remaining scratch defenders in the air and on the ground; the airship replied with more suppressive fire. One by one winged equine shapes joined the enemy casualties in plunging from the sky. Mercifully those on the ground were hidden from sight behind the half-timbered and thatched cottages and shops of the village.

At last the trio of fugitives crashed through the brush skirting the tangled forest’s edge, mostly leaving behind the sights and sounds of destruction. Tears streamed down Sunset’s set face as she lit her alicorn again with a cautiously faint glow. Cook, expression equally tight, took deep slow breaths to restore his wind and his equilibrium.

Rose blew out a breath. “Don’t lower your guard,” she admonished. “Mister Cook, you said the forest is dangerous. What did you mean?”

“Sunset may know more about it than I do,” Cook cautioned. “But as I parsed it, the Everfree has its own ambient world-magic. It’s capable of active resistance, even without the hazards of running into large creatures—or, right now, enemy patrols, though I doubt they’ve got any this far out when they have to be busy mopping up Ponyville.”

“Probably, but don’t count on it.” Rose brooded for a beat. “We don’t know what their resources or their goals are.”

Sunset turned back from looking and listening the way they’d come. “I never thought about it that way before, but Cook’s right, more or less. The forest could work at making it harder to find our way, f’rinstance. But at least we aren’t being followed, as far as I can tell.”

Rose craned her neck to squint briefly in the same direction. “Silver lining—half the critters in the area have to be running around in a panic, what with the fire and noise going on. They might not pay as much attention to us, and all the activity might make it harder for enemy troops to notice us, if they start scouting the forest.”

“Yeah, but . . . those ‘large creatures’ Cook mentioned?” Sunset’s tone turned apprehensive. “Start with manticores and timber wolves and go up from there. There’s even supposed to be an ursa major somewhere around here.”

“Manticores? The mythical big cats with scorpion stings?” Rose sounded distinctly skeptical.

Cook snorted. “They’re not mythical here. And the timber wolves are—well, I’m not sure what they are, but they’re bigger than dire wolves, and they’re just as nasty.”

“They’re made of old branches and twigs and wood scraps, held together somehow with magic.” Sunset shivered once. “It’s not hard to knock ’em to pieces, but after a few seconds the enchantment pulls them back together again.”

“So they keep on coming until they’re destroyed enough they can’t reassemble. Got it,” Rose summed up in a grim tone. “But we need to get moving again.” She lowered her head and spotted the compass hanging from a strap. “Huh. There it is. Even in the same place, mostly. Okay.” In a few brief sentences she sketched out the procedure for following a compass bearing until they found a trail to use. “Stay right behind me, and do what I do.”

“So, no flying?” Cook asked innocently. Sunset blinked at him and opened her mouth, then seemed to reconsider and closed it again.

Rose glowered. “One, I haven’t had any real practice yet. Two, the canopy is way too low. Three, it’s dark. Four, neither of you can do it. So no. No flying.”


Finding an animal trail in the dense wildwood proved excruciatingly difficult. Stumbles over roots or into scratchy, thorny bushes seemed more frequent than they should be, and the thick foliage hid any sight, or light, of moon or stars. After a small slice of eternity, Cook and Sunset resorted to trading off the middle position and illumination duty. “It’s like . . . like holding a lantern overhead in one hand,” Sunset whispered to Rose. “Your arm gets tired after a while. Lighting up like this is just as tiring, so we have to rest our alicorns.”

When at last they almost fell into a narrow run, all three breathed sighs of provisional relief. Walking the trail was marginally easier, though tree roots still snaked across it to trip unwary hooves. Distant crashes or calls indicated the wildlife indeed was disturbed by the faraway flames, but only once was their trek interrupted.

“What the—?” Rose reared up and drew her head back; her wings half-spread. A pack of vaguely porcupine-like animals, with very large mouths full of very large teeth, rounded a bend in the path and flooded toward them, hissing and growling all the while.

Sunset, just behind Rose, ducked her head to look under one of the raised wings. “Quick, jump off the trail!”

Rose, closest to the swarm, leapt aside just as a barrage of quills launched through the air. Muffled curses indicated some found their marks, but the immediate target and momentary pause that followed gave Sunset and Cook the chance to dive into the surrounding brush unmolested. Once the stampede tumbled past, they regrouped on the trail.

“Are you okay, Rose?” Sunset asked.

“Unless these are poisoned, I think I’ll live—but they hurt like blazes.” Rose’s voice was shadowed with pain and she moved with a distinct limp. “What were those? I’ve never seen porcupines that big or colored like, ah, ponies.”

“Uh, I’ve never seen real ones before, but I think they’re . . . pukwudgies.” Sunset sounded unsure. “If they are, the spines aren’t poisonous, but they do have barbs, so they’re kinda tricky to pull out.”

Cook moved forward and started extricating the quills that had stuck in Rose’s feathers; those embedded in her skin he left strictly alone. “Can you keep moving, Captain?”

“I’ll have to, won’t I?” Rose hissed through her teeth. “We can’t stop long enough to pull them out, and the conditions here are pretty bad for that anyway. I just have to be careful not to knock them on anything.”


None of them knew how much longer they trudged through the blackness relieved only by alicorn-light and occasional glows from forest life both mundane and magical. At last, though, the trail debouched on the bank of a small river. Rose, still game but shaky, called a halt. All three sat heavily; Cook doused his alicorn.

Almost immediately Sunset’s midsection emitted a startlingly loud growl. Her ears flagged sheepishly when the other two heads swiveled to stare at her, but neither commented. Instead Cook looked over his shoulder and, after a moment of rummaging in his packs, discovered a roughly cylindrical package wrapped in waxed paper. The contents proved to be pucks of a granola-like mix glued together with honey. By now beyond surprise at the portal’s quirky translations, he simply levitated one each to Sunset and Rose and bit into one himself.

As they ate, they looked up to the ribbon of visible sky and the stars that dotted it. “I wonder what’s happening back . . . home,” Sunset murmured.

“A fire drill,” Cook replied, though even his humor seemed stifled. “A friendly power’s been invaded suddenly by an unknown enemy. That’ll wake up everyone.

“Oh. Yeah, that too. I was thinking—”

“—Of your friends,” Rose finished. “They’re worried, I’m sure. But we’re doing what we can to protect them.” With a grunt she stood and staggered down to the river’s edge. “Either of you know anything about water conditions here? Blood, sweat, and tears, I need a drink.” It wasn’t a metaphorical swear, since streaks of all three tracked through her coat; mild dehydration was the inevitable result. “I don’t want to dip into my canteen reserve if I don’t have to.”

Sunset and Cook exchanged looks, and the latter spoke up. “I’m sorry, Captain, I don’t think we do. But wait a moment; I’ll dig out my filtration straw, so you don’t have to unpack yours.”

He was in the process of extracting it from his pack when the river abruptly erupted in a gush; a long, gorgeously coiffed and mustachioed head and serpentine neck rose through the fountain. Rose backpedaled hastily, though not quickly enough to escape a drenching.

“Oh my goodness, more ponies!” The flamboyant voice emanating from the head, now as high above as some of the treetops, mingled concern with bafflement. “What in the world is going on? There’s been so much noise and—”

“War,” Cook interrupted loudly. “That’s what’s going on. Someone’s invaded Equestria.”

The ruffled jaw shut with an audible clop. “Oh dear,” the creature said more faintly. “Well. That explains so much.

“More ponies, you said,” Sunset spoke up. “What about the others?”

“Oh yes,” came the reply in a reminded tone. “A good many of them seemed dreadfully confused, and they had no idea where to go, poor dears. I had to think about that a good long time, I can tell you, but once I did—”

“What did you tell them?” a dripping Rose interrupted firmly, clearly holding her temper in check.

“What?” The head tilted and enormous eyes peered down. “Oh! Oh yes. I remembered what that lovely young filly Twilight Sparkle said about the old ruined palace, so—”

“The Palace of the Two Sisters!” Sunset broke in. “Can you tell us how to get there?”

“As I was saying,” the serpent went on with some asperity, “I gave them the best directions I could and wished them luck.”

“We’d be very grateful for your assistance,” Cook said in an unruffled tone. “The sooner we’re on our way, good sir, the sooner you can return to your routine, or help out more ponies. I’m sure we won’t be the last.”

Mollified, the serpent rambled through some not-entirely-clear instructions, then allowed Cook and Sunset to cross the rushing waters by jumping along the undulations of his back. Rose managed, barely, to flutter across, landing with a thump on the other bank.

Upon a tactful inquiry from Cook they received a somewhat nettled assurance of the water’s purity, after which the serpent vanished into the currents.

“Can we trust him?” Rose asked once she was sure the stranger was out of earshot.

Cook pondered a moment. “Yes, I think so. He had no apparent motivation to mislead us, and his information seems to be sound. Sunset?”

The younger unicorn started, then focused on her companions. “Uh, yeah. I think Princess Twi’s mentioned him once or twice. He’s harmless, and he gets along okay with ponies, but he’s—well, he’s kind of a drama queen, to be honest.”

Cook barked a laugh and even Rose managed a strained smile as she replied, “All I care about is whether he told the truth. If you both think he did, that’s good enough. Water break, then we need to move on.”

All three drank deeply, equine-fashion, before resuming their journey.


It was the middle of the night before they emerged onto the expansive meadow surrounding the old tumbledown palace on its small rise. Scattered lights, both unicorns and lanterns, dotted the area. Rose rasped another curse. “An airship lookout could spot this miles away.”

“Right now we need the rest—and some medical care for you, Captain,” Cook commented quietly. Sunset seconded this with an affirmative noise.

After a pause, Rose let out a resigned huff. “All right. I s’pose we don’t have a lot of choice right now.”

Once they crossed the relatively new rope-and-plank bridge over the gorge slashing across the meadow, they were greeted with a wild variety of reactions from the ponies they met. Those with a modicum of self-possession pressed them for any additional news; in the first instance Cook overrode his companions with, “Sorry, we don’t know anything more than you do. We have injuries here. Please make way.” Under his breath he added to Rose and Sunset, “They’ll badger us no end if we admit to knowing anything, and once they start asking questions, there’s no telling where it could lead—like, say, who we are and where we came from.” Rose nodded agreement, forestalling any objections on Sunset’s part.

The ruins had been converted into a makeshift campsite; tarps and awnings, most of them weathered and worn, roofed over some of the half-restored halls and chambers. Finally they were escorted to a side room where ponies lay on pallets or even blankets, breathing heavily or dozing uneasily. Some of the wounds made Sunset flinch and gave Cook pause; Rose ignored them. A tall, lanky earth pony stallion, curly orange mane bobbing above dun coat, ambled from patient to patient. He looked up at the intrusion and sighed. “More? All right, come over here.”

The pediatrician, for such he turned out to be, gave Rose a quick, efficient once-over. Minor blood and fluid loss, fatigue, and of course the quills themselves summed up his findings. He insisted on checking Cook and Sunset as well, but found them no more than tired and sweated out. “Go get plenty of water, then some sleep if you can. At least get some rest. We’ll take care of Ms. Brass here.” As Cook and Sunset turned to leave, he trotted to another doorway and called through it, “Nurse? Some assistance with quill removals, please?”

Everfree

View Online

By the time a gingerly moving Rose found them again, Cook and Sunset had trampled down a spot out on the meadow and cobbled together a pup tent from the somewhat mismatched shelter halves found tied to the older pair’s transformed packs.

“How’re you feeling?” Sunset circled the tent—almost the only one visible amidst the tall wild grass—and eyed the limping pegasus solicitously.

“The doc said I’ll live, but I’m not thrilled about these . . . mud packs.” Rose looked down at her chest and opened her good wing, showing small splotches of a drying spackle-like substance covering her quill wounds.

“Don’t tell me, let me guess,” Cook put in absently as he worked at the tent’s finishing touches. “He was out of bandages.”

“Yeah, pretty much.” Rose shook her head. “I’ll bet he didn’t have a lot to start with, since he probably had to run with whatever he could grab on the way out, like everybody, ah, everypony else. But still.”

Sunset craned her neck to peer at the makeshift plasters by alicorn-light. “Umm, they’re probably treated with a poultice mix, so they should be pretty clean.”

“Homeopathy?” Rose didn’t sound reassured.

“Oh! No, alchemy,” Sunset explained, and after a moment added hastily, “That’s a real thing here. The zebras are pretty good at it, and we’ve learned a lot from them.”

Cook ambled over for his own look. “It’s still taught at medical school, I believe, even if some of it’s obsolete these days. Don’t military medics get trained on field expedients? Same idea.”

“Okay, fair,” Rose acknowledged. She eyed the tent with grudging approval. “Anything I can do to help?”

“No,” Cook said bluntly. “You lie down and rest. We won’t be able to get more than a few hours of sleep before dawn, so we need to make the most of it.” When Rose opened her mouth, he went on, “You’re walking wounded, Captain, and you need to take at least a little time to recover if we’re going to travel in the morning.”


Sleep proved elusive and fitful: stress, unfamiliar surroundings, makeshift arrangements, disturbances as refugees continued to trickle in. The pièce de résistance was the onset of “wild” rainfall not long after the three of them settled onto their sleeping pallets. Desultory efforts to steer it elsewhere came to nothing as the sheer mass of clouds overmatched the few pegasus ponies—even fewer weather-trained—who went up to meet them. In the end most of those present crowded into what shelter the ruins offered, leaving the meadow to hardier or better-equipped souls.

Rose muttered under her breath, barely audible over the rain drumming on the taut oilskin. She shifted position yet again, the novelty of her new winged form wearing off somewhat. Sunset, sprawled beside her, mumbled sleepily, “Try sleepin’ on your back’r your front. Twi had th’ same trouble when she got her wings ’n’ stuff.”

“Or you could try sleeping on a cloud.” Cook’s voice from the far side of the tent hovered somewhere between irritation and amusement.

“Seriously?” Suspicion lurked in Rose’s voice.

Sunset sighed. “Cloudwalking is part o’ pegasus magic, yeah, but nopony’s controlling these clouds. They’ll drift on the wind, and you’d be miles away by morning. Or they could dissipate, and then you’d fall. If you didn’t wake up in time—”

“I get the picture.” Before Rose could continue her sour observations, another voice sounded through the torrent.

“Hullo? Who’s there?” Anxiety and exhaustion wavered in the heavy brogue—too thin to be called a shout, too forceful to be anything else. “I’ve foals in tow!” Further words, softer, were nearly swallowed by the rain, followed by a couple of small piping voices.

“Sonofa—” Rose lunged up, discomfort forgotten, and yelled back, “Here!” Ruthlessly she poked Sunset, then Cook, with a shod hoof. “Shake a leg, you two.”

All three stumbled out into the downpour. In moments a faint alicorn glow emerged from the wet gloom, revealing a solidly built unicorn mare, all pale blues and grays, head down and followed by a gaggle of foals who tottered along behind her, nearly out on their feet. “A-Azure?” Sunset squeaked. “Is that you?”

The stranger raised her head fractionally, soaking mane trailing heavily. “Sunset Shimmer, is’t? Of all th’ mares.” She blinked at the pair flanking the gold-coated unicorn. “I’d give ye all a proper greetin’, but . . .”

“Say no more,” Cook murmured. “The old palace is that way, Ms. Azure.”

The trio shepherded the whole cavalcade across the sodden grass. Sunset paced alongside the other unicorn mare while Rose and Cook trailed the young fillies and colts, making sure none collapsed or wandered off. One already was draped along the long-suffering guide’s back, barely awake enough for a whimper of, “Ma? We there yet?”

“Almost, sprout. Look, it’s Sunset. Ye ’member her, right?”

“Hi, River.” Sunset leaned over to nuzzle the filly, half-buried under the poncho thrown over both Azure and her adopted daughter. River returned the nuzzle before pulling her head back under the cloth like a tortoise.

“What happened, Azure?” Sunset let her worry show in the question, as she had not in front of the foals.

Azure gazed into the rain ahead. “I’m guessin’ ye saw the airship an’ the bombin’?” At Sunset’s nod she continued, “Well, me husband Gleam’s home on leave, so we both went out t’ organize th’ townsfolk. Things . . . didn’t go well. ’Twas pretty plain it was all slidin’ into th’ pot, so Gleam stayed put while I gathered up all th’ foals I could find an’ lit out. A close-run thing, I don’t mind sayin’. Had t’ leave me flute b’hind, but I took me rifle an’ all th’ ammo I could carry, an’ me sword t’ boot. Shot down three o’ th’ hooligans and ran through two more ’fore we could reach th’ wood.” Grim satisfaction colored her recitation. Then she took a deep breath. “Of what happened after I know naught.” For a moment her mask slipped, showing a desperate fear for the husband she’d left with the town’s civilian defenders.

Sunset rubbed shoulder and cheek against hers comfortingly. “If anypony can win through, it’s Gleam.”

“Don’t I know it,” Azure replied as they stepped onto the crumbling old stoop. More loudly, she called, “Okay, you lot, here we are, safe an’ sound. In with ye, now!”


In the echoing vestibule all of them did their best to dry off, letting clothes fall with wet splats on the stone floor and shaking themselves. River slid off her adoptive mother’s back and Azure’s poncho followed, joining the rest of the temporarily discarded garments and revealing a mostly dry vest under crossed straps supporting scabbards for rifle and sword.

Rose’s brow rose as she surveyed the battered, faded bits of embroidery on the vest’s shoulders and chest; despite the unfamiliar designs there was no mistaking their military nature. “Guard?”

The unicorn mare nodded wearily. “Sergeant-Major Azure Foalklore, scout master, EUPG, retired.” In turn she glanced up at the larger pegasus. “An’ ye? ’Tain’t many things cause wounds like those.”

“I—” Rose looked taken aback and uncharacteristically at a loss for words.

With an artfully bland expression Cook put in, “Like you, Sergeant, the good captain here is a retired soldier.”

“Captain!” There was a trace of apology in the reply, and the former NCO snapped to attention by sheer reflex.

“Stand easy, Sar-Major. You couldn’t know.” Rose shot Cook a fulminating glare before turning back. “Master scout, hm?”

“Oh aye!” Pride suffused the words. Then Azure sighed and shook her head. “But here I am, fled from me home, me husband fightin’ ’longside th’ townsfolk—”

“I’ll hear none of that, Sergeant Major,” Rose interrupted in a bracing tone. “You succeeded in bringing a half-dozen foals out of harm’s way, guiding them through the Everfree Forest under adverse conditions, and reaching at least temporary safety. You’ve done an exemplary job, one any recce outfit would be proud to count among their accomplishments.”

A few other ponies had begun to show up from deeper within the palace’s remnants, attracted by the sound of voices. Perforce the discussion was cut short as a new bustle took over. By the time the ruckus died away, even Azure had been swept up and carried off by it, leaving Sunset, Cook, and Rose standing and looking after the departed folk in bemusement.

At last Rose sighed and looked up at the tarps overhead. “Well, at least the rain seems to be dying down. Maybe we can go back to our bivvy without getting soaked all over again.”


There was no dawn—at least, none that was visible. The clouds became a leaden fog that gradually lightened to a pewter mist, muffling what little sound reached them. Few if any of the others in or around the ruins seemed to be stirring in the early morning when Rose prodded the others into rising and striking the tent. Cook made no complaint beyond an inarticulate grunt, but Sunset uttered a few plaintive noises.

“We have to leave while we can,” Rose whispered. “By now the enemy must have Ponyville wrapped up. That means patrols could be sweeping the forest. The minute they find this place—”

Sunset bit her lip, manifestly distressed, and Rose sighed. “I’m sorry, Sunset. We can’t stay, for the same reasons we couldn’t stay at Princess Twilight’s place. We can’t delay, because if any of the refugees come out to check on us, it’ll get that much harder to leave, for all kinds of reasons.”

“If it’s any consolation, the fog will help both us and the other folks here.” Cook paused. “Pretty convenient when you think about it.”

Rose gave him a sharp glance. “More magic?”

Cook shrugged. “Maybe.”

“But—what about Gleam? What happened back there? How—?”

Rose turned the same look on Sunset. “I don’t know, and there’s no good way to find out. Sunset, have you ever heard the phrase ‘fog of war’?”


Breakfast—more of the honey-granola pucks—waited until they were well away from the palace meadow, on the bank of another stream. As Cook distributed the food, Rose cleared her throat. “You two are the experts. Where do we go from here?”

“Um . . .” Sunset’s ears flagged. “We could . . . go to the second portal.”

“What?” Rose stared at her, good eye round and flashing. Another short string of curses followed. “You mean there’s another one out there? It would have been nice to know that!”

Sunset cringed at the acid tone—more corrosive than Rose normally vented, especially to younger folks—then looked down and mumbled something apologetic.

Cook gave Sunset a brief pained glance before turning back. “You had no need to know, Captain. The girls discovered it on a cruise during spring break; it was covered with beach sand on a small uninhabited island.”

“That’s out.” Rose waved an arm in dismissal. “If we’re caught trying to reach it, the enemy finds it and we’re no better off than we would have been at Twilight’s tower. I assume, Mister Cook, those who do have a need to know will do something about it?”

“I submitted a full report on it, and I can’t imagine the military hasn’t put a contingency plan in place.”

“So even if we reach it, we might find it closed too.” Rose made a face. “Or we might jump into a free-fire zone.”

Cook frowned. “That doesn’t sound—”

“Trust me,” Rose broke in wryly. “It could happen. I’m sure there’d be orders to exercise restraint, but we’re talking about bored and jumpy young men with heavy weapons standing watch over a mysterious magical portal that could start spewing out unknown hostiles with no warning. Do you want to take a chance on their fire discipline? I’m sure they’d be very sorry afterward, but that wouldn’t be much consolation to what’s left of us.”

“I suppose not,” Cook conceded. “In that case, I’d recommend getting out of Equestria. The question is where to go.”

With a sniffle Sunset looked up again and in an only slightly ragged voice suggested, “North. The Crystal Principality.”

Rose’s brow rose. “Mister Cook?”

“Hm. Griffonstone is effectively a failed state, and getting there is a chore and a half. Yakyakistan is, well, a collection of villages. The bison tribes have no real state as we understand the word. The zebras . . .” Cook trailed off, thinking hard, and after a couple of minutes shrugged. “Sunset’s right. Even without Princess Cadance present, it’s probably the best choice. Mind you, that doesn’t make it a good one, but I’m not sure anything better is available.”

Rose blinked. “Okay, that last bit needs a little unpacking.”

“Princess Cadance was at the Friendship Festival too,” Sunset explained. “Twi mentioned something about all the princesses being there.”

“So we have to assume all of them, including her, are at least captured.” Rose nodded. “But presumably there’s some sort of caretaker governance in place while she’s away.”

“Yes,” Cook agreed. “The question is how solid it is.”

“Only one way to find out,” Rose replied briskly. “In the mean time, we have to figure out how to get past Canterlot. It’s northeast of us, and I didn’t see any other passes through the mountains. I’m guessing we’d have to swing a long way east or west to find another way through.”

Both Sunset and Cook nodded confirmation, and Rose’s nostrils flared with a deep breath. “Okay. So we have a choice. We can try to circle around Canterlot and the mountains—more time spent traveling, which could mean more risk of getting caught. Or we can beeline for the Canterlot pass—less time traveling, but going straight into the heart of conquered territory. Which will it be?”

“Some choice,” Cook muttered. Sunset’s worried expression echoed the sentiment.

Legends

View Online

Just within the edge of the tangled forest, three equine forms lay on the reverse slope of a broad hill and peeked over the crest. Cuts and scrapes covered them; manes and tails were tangled and ragged. Even their coats, smudged and roughened, lacked the usual sleek luster of civilized ponies. A faint reek of stale sweat clung to their bodies, spiced with a whiff of smokeless powder on the pegasus mare. The Everfree Forest had not treated them kindly, though the two unicorns had insisted stoutly they got off lightly.

They spared scarcely a glance for the magnificent alpine panorama before them to the north, hazy with distance and heavy with evening shadows, the western ramparts of the mountain chain cleft by Canterlot’s pass. Instead their singular attention focused on the long narrow valley below that stretched east and west.

In a large clearing on the valley floor, near the base of the next row of foothills, nestled a town of clapboard and shake. On its south edge lay a small railyard and a Y-junction heading northwest, southwest, and eastward. On the near side of the latter two branches ran a metalled turnpike, likely the original highway they followed. Birdsong surrounded the three ponies and faint snippets of voice or work sounds from the settlement wafted to their ears. At first glance the scene appeared idyllic. The trio greeted the apparent calm with relief.

Rose lowered the binoculars she’d pulled from one of her satchels for a closer look at the inhabitants. “Judging by body language and movements, they’re pretty nervous down there, but everypony’s going about their business. Life goes on, after all. I’d say the town grew up around the junction and the maintenance yard—there’s no sign of agriculture or other industry. I can’t see any activity on the rail lines, which doesn’t surprise me, but that small locomotive and rolling stock on the sidings could be a bit of luck.”

“We’ll need to get presentable before we hit town—as much as we can, at least.” Cook rubbed his eyes with bent fetlocks. “Captain, who are you?”

“Captain Rose Brass, EUPG, retired.” Rose proceeded to rattle off a brief career history, not unlike her real military résumé, though with units and assignments transposed to references more familiar to pony ears.

Cook nodded in weary satisfaction. “And who are you, young lady?”

“Analemma—Ana for short. Just graduated from Princess Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns summa cum laude.” The teen looked proud but a little troubled, and broke character long enough to ask, “Is that really necessary, Cook? It seems—I don’t know, what’s that old line about lilies?”

“‘To paint the lily’, I think, is what you’re talking about,” Cook replied, “though most folks misquote it as ‘to gild the lily’. No, it’s not absolutely necessary, but little touches like that can help cement a legend. After all, you did graduate summa from CHS, and I have no doubt you’d have done the same at SGU if you’d stayed. Besides, there’s no way anypony could talk to you for more than five minutes without figuring out you’re bright as a limelight. Go on.”

Obediently Sunset recited a mostly fictional summary of Analemma’s young life. She needed just a single cue, and Cook reluctantly assigned her a passing grade. “But don’t forget those details. Every text I’ve read on the subject stresses that submerging yourself in your assumed identity is the best thing you can do. For the duration, you aren’t playing a role. You are Analemma. Remember that.”

“And who are you?” Rose asked him with a hint of malicious cheer.

“Silver Platter,” Cook replied promptly. “Butler and valet, currently between engagements. This little inconvenience certainly won’t make it any easier to find new employment. And no, I can’t discuss my previous clients, thank you very much; professional discretion, don’t you know.”

“It’s a topsy-turvy world where a butler can be more secretive than an officer,” Rose mused half-seriously.

Sunset couldn’t help snickering and even Cook essayed a slight smile as he answered, “Oh, I’m sure there’s plenty you can’t talk about in either persona, Captain. The difference is, ponies and other people know that about the military and take it for granted. Now, how did we get here?”

Rose looked to Sunset meaningfully; the latter sighed. “My uncle Silver and I were traveling together on the train back to Canterlot for the Friendship Festival. We made it as far as Ponyville when a strange airship showed up and attacked the town. We barely got away.”

“I was on the same train, heading to Canterlot for a unit reunion as part of the Festival,” added Rose. “I hooked up with you two more or less by accident in the chaos, and we’ve traveled together ever since.” She paused and asked her own out-of-character question. “How well is all this going to stand up?”

“Always start by being as vague as possible without actually waving a hoof.” Cook waved a hoof. “But what really makes this work is the fact Equestria is a telegraph-and-newspaper country—and as yet hasn’t come up with the idea of identity papers. Here, you are who you say you are, and national authorities aside, it’s hard to prove otherwise. Since those authorities have to be pretty discombobulated at the moment, they probably can’t or even won’t gainsay us. Now, before we head down there, let’s see if we can dunk ourselves in a stream, at least.”


“Sorry, Mister Platter, but ’s far’s I know the trains ain’t runnin’.” The station master shook his head. “Ain’t heard nothin’ from Canterlot th’ last day’r two. The telegrapher said she got a coupla garbled messages, somethin’ ’bout fightin’ in th’ streets, then it cut out. Folks here are plenty worried, I can tell you.”

“That much probably is correct, good sir,” Cook told him with perfect composure. “In fact, my niece and I, along with our companion, barely escaped with our lives at Ponyville. As you may know, Canterlot is quite visible from there. We could see clearly the smoke above the city. Indeed, almost certainly we are merely the first of many ponies you may see fleeing the troubles. More could be here within hours.”

The elderly earth pony blinked and his mouth flapped a couple of times. Sunset jumped into the silence, gazing up at him with pleading eyes. “Please, sir, if we can’t get to Canterlot, we’ve got family in Tall Tale up north.” She pointed along the northwest branch of the junction.

“Well, now, Missy, I ain’t sure—”

“There’s a locomotive and some rolling stock on the sidings,” Rose pointed out on cue. “Surely you can put together a train and crew.”

“That’s a switcher engine, Ma’am, an’ b’sides, I ain’t got th’ authority t’—”

“If refugees are on the way,” she added baldly, “the enemy may not be far behind. Think about that.”

The hapless functionary’s face and ears sagged. “I—”

“May I suggest,” Cook resumed smoothly, “that you consult with the mayor and whatever local authorities you can reach quickly. If you start now, you might have everything ready before the first of the displaced ponies show up. If not, who knows what might happen?”

“Riots,” Rose muttered. “Ponies trampling each other to reach the train.”

“If they can’t get to the train,” Sunset put in, face troubled, “they might take it out on the town.”

“I dunno . . .” By now the station master bore a distinct trapped look, eyes flicking around.

“And if the enemy marches up during the panic—” Rose affected her best grim expression. With her scars and eyepatch it was very grim indeed.

Suddenly the stallion was gone. The trio looked at each other, expressions ambivalent. “Well,” Cook murmured with a sigh, “let’s hope that worked. We could take this show on the road.”

“We are,” said Sunset.


Less than an hour later railroad employees of all kinds were working frantically. Rose winced frequently—haste, the inexperience of station and clerical workers dealing with rolling stock alongside the actual trainponies, and the lack of modern concepts of workplace safety made for a hair-raising spectacle. Sunset simply couldn’t bring herself to watch and accompanied Cook as the latter buttonholed the portly, sweating earth pony unfortunate enough to hold the office of mayor. It took all the diplomat’s wiles to soothe the older stallion’s jitters enough that his stovepipe hat no longer threatened to fall off his head. That was, unfortunately, the last thing that went to plan.

The first sign of events going off the rails was a rapid metronome-steady clumping rhythm that grew steadily louder in tandem with a cloud of dust approaching on the turnpike from the east. Incipient anxiety was allayed when a vanguard of ponies became visible, trotting in cadence and clad in kepis and campaign coveralls, regimental colors at the fore and slung rifles bristling.

Townsfolk began wandering out to welcome the Guard unit, and even Rose ambled over. “Huh. Double time. In a hurry, aren’t they? I guess they wanted to reach a decent bivouac before sundown,” she commented in an undertone. “Too big to be a platoon, too small to be a battalion. I’d say it’s a company of . . . ah, infantry, I guess. I don’t suppose either of you recognizes the colors?”

Cook and Sunset shook their heads, and the younger mare added in an unsettled tone, “I remember Principal Celestia subbing in a history class once. She mentioned that armies around the time you talked about, um, Uncle Silver, had three branches—infantry, cavalry, and artillery. I didn’t make the connection before, but Princess Celestia, in one of the last classes I had with her, talked about the three branches of the Guard, with the same names.”

Rose thought a moment. “Oh. Cavalry here is what we’d call aircav—air cavalry. Got it.” Her brow furrowed in puzzlement. “But—”

“Being a warrior was pretty important in the old pegasus tribe,” Sunset explained. “So they were the big shots. I never did figure out all the details, but somehow or other the Guard got the name from them.”

Rose shook her head wryly. “Ah, military tradition. Nice to see it’s as weird and twisty here as it is back home.”

As they watched and conversed, the infantry company reached the broad expanse of packed earth and low grass that surrounded the tiny railyard and the road beside it, then began shaking itself out from marching order into formation amidst much shouting and gesturing of guidons. The railroad workers, who’d paused in their hurried labors to gawk, were chivvied back to work by their bosses. Idle townsponies drifted closer to watch. The infantry company, for its part, seemed to ignore the civilians.

Rose frowned. “Wait. That doesn’t look like evening muster. They’re—”

Under the hubbub a new thumping rolled in the distance. Rose whipped around and galloped toward the gathering crowd. At the top of her lungs she hollered, “Get out of here now! The enemy is coming up the road! Go go go!”

There was instant pandemonium. Screams drowned out the calls of officers and sergeants. Ponies fled in all directions including upward. Some of the railroad workers broke and ran; others bent to their tasks with feverish intensity. Rose backwinged to a halt and stared, transfixed, as the Guard fell into firing lines facing back the way they’d come. Cook and Sunset scrambled for cover behind a stack of railroad ties.

No doubt the battle would be named for the town, if anypony lived to tell of it.

Stand

View Online

With the possible exception of the Guard company, it was the first clear look anypony had at the mysterious enemy. The huge figures thundered along the road like the oversize gorillas their slate-gray bodies loosely resembled, maintaining an astonishing pace through sheer size. White ruffs of fur around their collars and along their otherwise whippetlike tails streamed in the wind of their passage; long dark faces seemed utterly impassive. Darker still were their belted coverall uniforms, reinforced with jacks and spaulders featuring the peculiar blue insigne of mirrored lightning bolts, and covered with crossed bandoliers of pouches for caps, powder, and bullets. The muzzle-loading rifled muskets they carried—many still slung, some being readied—were built to the same massive scale, crude but powerful.

They bore no banners and held no formation, instead rushing en masse toward the lines of ponies awaiting them. The infantry captain standing on the company’s left danced in place for a moment as he watched the oncoming horde funneling onto the open ground from the road, then lifted his head and ordered, “Ready! Action front!” The last of his words all but disappeared under sudden deep booms as a few shrewder, or less impatient, opponents paused to take their first shots. Puffs of blue-gray smoke blossomed around them.

A split-second later the big earth stallion’s head twitched—then he toppled with the boneless finality of a dropped sack of flour. Behind him, across the yard, the spent conical projectile rang a boxcar wheel like a gong. Here and there in the ranks other ponies fell in place; two of the guidons disappeared as well. The whole uniformed mass shuddered on the brink of unraveling with the loss of command.

As if mesmerized Rose launched into a long flat gliding leap; had she considered it consciously she likely would have ended tumbling tail over teakettle, but as it was she touched down beside the dead officer with only a couple of unsteady steps. “Stand fast!” she bellowed. “Front rank! In volley! Fire!” Rattled lieutenants and relieved sergeants ratified her orders by repeating them down the line.

The leading row of ponies squeezed the tiller-like triggers in their pasterns; a lighter, sharper crackle replied to the basso roars of the heavier but slower enemy musketry. More acrid blue smoke rose all along the line, a harbinger of difficulty to come. The whole front wave of onrushing figures simply collapsed, some rolling or flipping forward from momentum before lying still.

“Front rank! Fall back!” Rose’s head never stopped moving as she looked around, striving to maintain situational awareness. “Middle rank! Take aim! Rear rank! Make ready!”

The booms were increasing in frequency as more of the enemy, given pause by the abrupt demise of their more impetuous comrades, slowed to a walk or even stopped before returning fire. In the teeth of it, though, the fallen guidons rose again through the thickening gunsmoke and the row of ponies in front stepped back, heads lowered, until they were behind the other two. Those who now faced the enemy leveled their rifles and awaited the command; those in the rank behind them stood to with rifles raised muzzle-up.

“Front rank! In volley! Fire!”

Another crisp crackle sounded through the din.

“Front rank! Fall back! Middle rank! Take aim! Rear rank! Make ready!”


The remaining railroad workers kept working, firing up the switcher’s boiler, hitching the motley collection of old, worn-out cars. Even when a middle-aged unicorn mare pitched over messily, her levitated tools clanging to the ground, the rest never slackened in their frenzied determination, driven by the knowledge worse might await everypony if they failed.

With iron control Rose kept the gradually dwindling company in a slow, stubborn withdrawal across the yard toward the nascent train. The strange dark creatures pressed the Guards hard, but their advance was hampered by several factors that prevented them from overwhelming the smaller unit in short order. The relatively narrow frontage of the road allowed only a few of them at a time to filter onto the yard and join the fray. A slower rate of fire meant for every musket “ball” that went out, a breechloader-wielding pony could send back four or five round-nose bullets. Accuracy seemed lacking, whether due to manufacturing quality, poor training, or both. The westering sun was in their eyes. Black-powder smoke clouded the field ever more densely.

By the time a steam whistle pierced the deafening racket with its distinctive too-whoot, the unit’s left was beside the tail-end boxcar already showing hoof-size holes from the enemy’s heavy rounds. The right was anchored by the pile of ties behind which Cook and Sunset no longer hid.

The pair of unicorns had joined scores of other ponies in dodging and dashing for the old, half-derelict passenger cars hooked up behind the small engine. Along with the rest who had reached this precarious shelter, they lay on the decking between the cars’ benches amidst shards of shattered window glass, taking what cover they could. The less fortunate had joined the fallen guardsponies and creatures; still forms littered the field, veiled by the lowering gray smoke.

“Rear rank!” Rose’s hoarse voice barked. “Prepare to board! Lieutenant! Get them aboard!” Taking it for granted she would be obeyed, she didn’t even glance back. “Front rank! In volley! Fire!”

The back row started jumping into the boxcars one after another, directed by a unicorn colt who appeared simultaneously exalted and terrified. The front row fired again.

Down to two ranks and with no ground left to give, Rose switched tactics. “Front rank, crouch! Rear rank, upright!” The remaining lieutenant and sergeants momentarily looked confused, then figured it out and reissued the orders in proper form. The front rank stayed low enough for the troops staggered behind them to fire past them, and volleys rang out once more, front and back, front and back.

“All aboard, Ma’am!” the young unicorn assured her breathlessly as he bounded by on his way across the rear of the formation.

“Rear rank! Prepare to board! Lieutenant! Get them aboard!” Now came the tricky part. “Front rank! Rapid fire!” Immediately the remaining rank rose to fire individually, as fast as they could load and work their single-shot rolling-block actions, into the oncoming shapes looming through the smoke; the surf-like ebb and flow of volleys dissolved into a constant rattling stream. The race was on.

The first of the giants burst from the haze bayonet-first, raised musket butt-upward, striking down at the smaller pony before it—or him, or her, it was hard to tell. A crescendo of rifle shots dispatched that one, but others were uncomfortably close behind. The last of the second rank boarded, the unicorn lieutenant gave another shout, and Rose called out, “By the numbers! Right to left! Prepare to board! Lieutenant! Tell the engineer to make steam now! Sergeant Major! Get them aboard!”

The young lieutenant sprinted like a deer for the locomotive. The remaining line peeled off one pony at a time, trotting behind their mates toward the train, shepherded by sergeants and corporals. Not all of them made it as the unit’s increasing vulnerability began to tell. Without orders some of the boarded soldiers took up firing as best they could from the boxcars’ open doorways. Their greater height above the ground helped, but the angles were bad.

The makeshift train jerked as steel wheels spun on steel rails but found no purchase. Shrieks of alarm and thuds of falling bodies added yet another layer to the tumult. A moment later levitation auras were springing to life all along the dangling chain swinging from the tiny sand tower until, with a downward heave, they opened the sluice. A cascade of sand showered the tracks and the nose of the switcher.

“Now now now!” Rose yelled with all the voice she had left. The remaining guardsponies scrambled after the still slow-moving train, jumping and hauling themselves and each other onto the boxcars. Rose herself dusted off in a simple climb-and-arc, sprawling on top of the last car utterly without grace. The galloping lieutenant leapt last of all, his form perfect as he sailed straight through the still-open door of the last car and landed on a nice soft cushion of pony bodies, most of which emitted vociferous complaints.

Two or three of the foremost enemy troops vaulted onto the back of the tail-end boxcar, only to be blasted off by rifles stuck through the very holes their own muskets had punched in it. With a last whistle, the accelerating train trundled away down the northwest track—away from the road on which the enemy congregated—and it was over.


Rose stuck her head down through one of the open doors, short mane fluttering in the train’s scant slipstream. “Lieutenant?” she rasped faintly, then waved a hoof. Attracted more by the motion than the speech, the young stallion looked up, then stood on shaky legs and stepped over.

“Take charge here,” she ordered. “I need to check on the other car and the civilians.”

“Yes’m,” the unicorn colt replied earnestly. Despite her lack of headgear or even uniform he saluted before turning back to begin taking stock of who, and what, remained of the unit—at least the part of it in his car.

Wearily Rose staggered ahead on top of the train, wings spread to keep her steady, then repeated her orders to the other surviving lieutenant, who by good fortune and good thinking happened to be in the forward boxcar.

It was while continuing on she made a new discovery. A small overhanging branch, missed by some past maintenance crew, smacked her in the face, startling and discommoding her. Rather than sliding off the roof’s slight rake, though, she found herself still standing, feet flat and somehow clinging to the wood slats even through her steel shoes. She blinked down at them. “Uh. Something else to ask Sunset. Later.” Mental note made, she kept going.

One by one, she poked her head into each of the battered old bench cars from above. In every case she threw a small scare into most of the still-jittery passengers, but after they recovered from the momentary fright they lavished praise on her. She waved it away brusquely in favor of more important concerns—first and foremost, who was there and how they were. Some were in shock or overcome with grief. Some were wounded to greater or lesser degrees, a few by splinters of wood or shards of glass.

Sunset and Cook she found in the front-most car, doing what they could with the first-aid supplies in the latter’s pack. When Sunset saw Rose’s upside-down face, her own crumpled on the verge of relieved tears, but with a few deep breaths she mastered herself and gave a tolerably precise and complete report on the occupants of her car. Cook looked on silently from behind the younger mare, but gave Rose a solemn nod when she caught his eye.

“I can’t stay,” she told Sunset gently after the latter finished. “I have to check on the crew up front, and after that I have to get back to what’s left of the Guard company. They’re my responsibility now until I can ha—ah, pass them off to competent authority.”

Sunset sniffled and nodded. “Okay. We’ll see you later, right?”

Rose smiled tiredly. “It’s a promise.”

Bivouac

View Online

The little-used passing loop was almost overgrown; tall grass hid the tracks. A small makeshift train sat on the siding, concealed from possible eyes in the night sky by overhanging tree canopies. Under the foliage, a very few gas lamps and alicorn glows cast a minimal light for tasks that couldn’t—or shouldn’t—be put off until morning.

Physically and emotionally exhausted ponies sat or lay on the uphill embankment on the outside edge of the loop, between the track and the nearest trees. Some slept. Some murmured or whispered to each other. Guardsponies cleaned their rifle barrels of corrosive and obstructive black-powder fouling. A few who already had finished stood watch. A couple of trainponies did what they could to sweep out the shards of window glass, shattered by stray musket shots, covering the decks and benches of passenger cars. The engineer and her assistant inspected the little switcher locomotive, not designed to deal with heavy work, for overstrain and battle damage. A crew of volunteers was scooping out a small number of shallow graves.

In the midst of it all, lantern beside her, Rose Brass struggled with a fountain pen and compact hardback journal pulled from her transformed baggage, scribbling notes for an after-action report as best she could, unaccustomed as she was to writing with lips. She looked up when Cook and Sunset settled down next to her.

“Captain, would you like me to transcribe for you?” Cook asked gently. The pegasus gratefully surrendered her pen and journal to his pale-gray levitation aura and with a sigh lowered her head a little before starting to dictate in dry, scratchy-throated sentences. Cook wrote with solemn equanimity. Sunset waited, listening, patiently and somewhat somnolently. The activity around them continued to slacken as more ponies finished what they were doing and sought their own rest. At last only the sentries, the gravediggers, and they remained awake and aware. After a few trailing words, Rose finished and Cook returned pen and book to her.

They lay silent for a moment. Birdcalls, cicadas, shovels, footfalls, muttered lookout calls and responses—and a few snores—almost drowned out faint rumbles that might be explosions somewhere far away. The air was redolent with sweat, blood, heated metal, powder, freshly turned earth, and pine.

Finally Sunset looked around and, seeing no one nearby, turned to Rose with a sleepily curious expression. In a cautiously soft voice potential listeners might put down to tiredness, she asked, “Um, Rose? How did you know what to do back there? That’s been bugging me ever since I had a minute to think about it. I mean, that wasn’t exactly what you were trained for, right?” Not wanting to speak more explicitly, she gestured vaguely in the general direction of Ponyville, the portal hidden there, and by extension the other world.

Rose raised her head and put a hoof to her chest proudly. “Well, now, an officer is trained to be flexible and to adapt to any situation she finds herself in, and of course she’s taught all sorts of military history to help with that.” Then she deflated and confided in an undertone, “But I got a lot of it from an old movie I watched years ago. I did have to make up a little as I went along.” She raised her forehooves and glanced at them meaningfully. “But I figured most of the commands were simple and obvious enough nopony would have trouble with them even if I didn’t use exactly the right phrases.”

“It certainly worked,” Cook commented, also sotto voce. “I had a feeling it was something like that, and I’ll bet I even know which movie it was. My question is what kind of trouble this will make for you, Captain. A medically retired foreign national usurping command of a combat unit just before battle is . . . irregular, to say the least. Not all senior Guard officers will be privy to the ‘foreign national’ part, but they certainly will understand the ‘medically retired’ part. As far as I know there’s been no formal reactivation of your commission, either your assumed one here or your real one back home, so you had no legal standing for command at the time you exercised it.”

Rose huffed and nodded. “I’ll take my lumps when they come, but I couldn’t stand by and watch it all drop in the pot. Those lieutenants are good kids, but they’re green as grass. If they’d frozen or just plain lost it, we all would’ve been dead on the spot. Even if the senior one stepped up, I don’t think she’d have held it together long enough. It takes a lot of grit and concentration to run line infantry.”

“Like yours, Captain?” teased Cook with a straight face. Rose’s blush was barely visible in the lantern light, but she ducked her head as well, and mercifully he let it drop. “Well, after all, we can argue the exigencies of the moment, the results, and your past military record. One thing about a predigital society is, it’s easier to play fast and loose, and I’ve had some practice with that here over the last year. I’ll do my best on your behalf, and if I have to I’ll wave around my own status as chargé representing your nation.”

Rose peered at him, bemused. “. . . Thank you, Mister—ah, Platter. I appreciate the offer from, well, almost a total stranger.”

“It’s my duty as an FSO. Besides, you’re a good officer and a good per—individual, Captain. And any friend of Analemma . . .” Cook shrugged with his own share of discomfiture.

The silent Sunset in question, having slowly listed to her right, suddenly overbalanced and ended with her head and side leaning against Rose’s wing and barrel; a small snore escaped her slack mouth. Cook looked down at the younger pony. “She’s got a point. It’s time we hit the sack too.”

Rose looked down as well, more difficult with her blind eye on that side. Her brow furrowed and she bit her compressed lip. Cook examined the mare for a moment. “She’s not one of your soldiers, Captain,” he pointed out quietly, and after a pause continued, “Rose. She isn’t even one of your clients.”

“Then what is she?” Rose asked, uncharacteristic uncertainty coloring the ghost of her voice.

“I can’t answer that.” Cook looked outward, toward the train and the moonlit right-of-way beyond it. “All I can tell you is what she is to me.”

“And what is that?” Rose responded dutifully.

“A niece in truth,” Cook answered. “Maybe even a little sister.”

Rose thought it over before sliding her good wing out from under, then draping it over, the filly. In a distant tone she asked, “Isn’t that a conflict of interest, though? From what she told me before this whole circus started, part of your job’s to keep an eye on her—and her friends.”

Cook nodded wryly. “Yes, and that caused some trouble early on. It’s a little different now, though. They’re good girls, the lot of them, and I think the Powers That Be finally are convinced of it. At least, so I surmise from being given permission to help them with letters of recommendation and searches for university grants and loans. Mind you, I hadn’t asked for it. What does that suggest to you?”

A snort was all the answer his rhetorical question needed. “How did you get the job, anyway?” This time simple curiosity seemed uppermost. “You’re not exactly like other diplomats I’ve met.”

“It’s not exactly like other diplomatic jobs, so that’s fair enough.” A thoughtful pause followed before he began. “I assume as a military officer you have some idea how the Foreign Service works, so I’ll cut to the chase.” By that he meant skipping over graduating from university with a degree in international relations, passing one of the most difficult oral and written civil-service exams in the world, enduring a microscopic scrutiny resulting in security and medical clearances, and placement on the glorified waiting list that was the employment register.

Instead he described the strange and cryptic assignment offer that arrived just a few short months before his listing expired—and with it any hopes of a diplomatic career—then went on to relate meeting and winning the trust, even friendship, of Sunset and her circle, becoming not just a minder but occasional mentor and adviser to them. When he finished, Rose cocked her head. “Huh. Pretty good story.”

“It’s true,” he protested mildly. “Every word. Cross my heart and hope to fly, stick a cupcake in my eye.”

“I’m not even gonna ask about that,” Rose riposted. “What I am gonna ask about is, they sent a young guy to keep an eye on seven pretty girls?”

This time the pause was even longer. “That’s the social worker talking, I think. I told them I’m a sophisticated and debonair, ah, stallion of the world, just the sort to charm a group of young ladies, and that really may have been part of the logic. I know for a fact one reason I was chosen was because I was more likely to get past their guard than some old fossil who’d be just another adult authority figure.”

He let out a breath and looked away. “But to answer your real question, I’m about a decade and a half older than they are. I’m not into that kind of age difference. And . . . I like the ladies just fine, but I like guys better. I’ve had relationships with both, though not recently. No one ever said so, but I think that was a factor too. Well, both preferring guys and not having any recent relationships.”

“Oh.” The single word held a trace of apology for prying. “Okay.”

“Yeah.” Cook lowered his head to the grass. “It really is time to get some sleep now. Good night, Captain.”


“Before we board, I need to say a few words.” Rose stood downslope and faced the whole crowd of escapees. Early-morning sunlight filtered down, dappling the right-of-way and even a little of the embankment. The expressions in the eyes that looked down at her ranged from sharply interested to numbly glassy, but at least none looked wild, small mercies.

“Yesterday was a nightmare, no question. None of us woke up in the morning expecting to go through anything like it, but we did. I want you all to know, whatever you’re feeling right now—grief, fear, anger, depression—is perfectly normal.” She glanced pointedly over at the troops who’d formed up as best they could. “I don’t have the education or experience for full-fledged treatment, but I have some background in counseling, and I’ll do my best to be available to anypony who wants to talk about it. Understood?” Nods and a general mumble, spiced with more formal acknowledgments from the soldiers, answered her. “All right. Time to board, then.”

As trainponies helped others to climb onto the cars, Rose rejoined Sunset and Cook. “How about you two? How are you feeling?” she asked with concern.

“I—I’m not sure.” Painstaking honesty marked Sunset’s voice and face. “While everything was happening I didn’t have time to think about it. By the time I did, there were too many other ponies who needed help. It wasn’t until I saw you looking down from the roof that it all hit me. Right now I just feel kind of empty.”

Rose nodded, and after a moment’s thought her good eye narrowed. “Come to think of it—how many times now have you and the girls put yourselves in danger to save the day? You may have more experience with this sort of stress than those poor lieutenants. Still, that was pretty intense, and a lot bloodier than you’re probably used to, so you might have strange or delayed reactions later. If you need to talk—”

Sunset leaned forward to press her cheek against Rose’s neck. “I know. I can talk to you. I will.”

Rose reciprocated the gesture before turning to Cook. “And how about you?”

“I’m coping.” His tone was sober and understated. “The soldiers and townsponies may be more affected than we are. Our friends and loved ones are far away and safe, and we came expecting trouble, but they just watched their squads or families get torn to pieces out of nowhere.”

“You’re awfully calm.” She peered at him closely. “You’re not going to be one of those peo—ponies who suddenly blow up, are you?”

Cook shook his head. “No, probably not. I’ve always been pretty laid back and cool-headed; it’s one of the things that helped me get through university, and it’s something my, hm, employers look for. Still, do not mistake composure for ease.”

Recognizing the quote, Rose shot him a sharp look. “Huh. Okay. Well, the same goes for you, if you need to talk.”

He nodded. “And what about you, Captain?”

“I’ve got you two, don’t I?”

Pass

View Online

The afternoon was fine and cloudless and hot. The stalwart switcher engine puffed down the track little faster than a pony could canter—but far more tirelessly. So far there had been no other rail or foot traffic on the narrow right-of-way hemmed by forest and foothills. They might be the only ponies in the world for all anyone knew; there had been no glimpses even of activity in the visible strip of sky.

Rose lay on the cab roof gingerly, wincing from the sun-heated metal, and peered down through an open side window. “Well, what about signals?” she shouted to the pair laboring inside.

“This line don’t got signals,” the ancient and rather leathery engineer shot back without even looking up. “The company’s still usin’ timetables an’ train orders.” She backhoofed toward the telegraph poles that marched alongside the track. “They keep talkin’ ’bout startin’ ta use tokens, but it never seems ta happen. I bet they’d do it in a hurry if there was a big smash-up, ya know?”

“So we have no idea if there’s another train on the line, then?”

“Nope.” The cracked voice sounded unperturbed. “Jus’ keep thinkin’ good thoughts, an’ hope they’re movin’ slow like we are so’s they c’n stop quicker.” Her assistant didn’t look thrilled with this philosophy, but went on working without a word, watching gauges and making adjustments with attentive precision before turning to shovel more coal. The undersize locomotive was neither designed nor supplied for long trips away from its home yard, and there’d been no time for additional preparations. The resulting potential for unpleasant surprises left the crew tending to its needs with unswerving, if rather edgy, vigilance.

Rose snorted, albeit softly. The seemingly stoic pronouncement resonated with her ingrained military outlook, summed up in the simple statement politely phrased as “stuff happens”. Besides, she was partial to tough old biddies, not least because she was likely to join their ranks herself someday, provided she survived that long. “Right,” she murmured before heaving herself to her feet and turning to walk back along the top of the train with careful steps as it rounded a large-radius curve northward.

Automatically she eyed the pair of sentries posted on the first and last cars, making sure their eyes were searching the sky and the surrounding forest, and reminded herself to rotate the watch soon. More than enough soldiers were available for short stints of no more than an hour, to limit both inattentiveness from boredom and exposure to the buffeting slipstream. She acknowledged the not-quite-salutes the look-outs threw to indicate they’d seen her, then turned back around to face into the wind. With finicky care she spread her wings and commanded the mysterious clinging force she’d discovered to dissipate.

Sunset had explained the latter as the ponies’ answer to a lack of hands, a universal form of equine magic that enabled them to “stick” things to themselves, or themselves to things. It certainly was useful, and even permitted ponies to do a few things humans couldn’t, since it wasn’t restricted to hooves or frogs—but it did have sharp limits, being no stronger than musclepower and extending no farther than direct contact or contact through a single intermediary layer such as clothing or shoes. “After Sci-Twi compared it to the way gecko feet work, Rainbow Dash started teasing me about ‘gecko hooves’.” The young unicorn had rolled her eyes in affectionate exasperation.

The big pegasus lifted from the curved top of the passenger car and began flapping slowly, almost lazily. She slid to the left, swiveling her head back and forth continually to compensate for the missing eye, until she no longer was over the train. Her breathing speeded up, more from stress than exertion. She knew her oversize wingspread wasn’t close to brushing against car and foliage, but both human and pegasus instincts insisted she was about to foul her wingtips.

She dropped a pony-length of altitude, rushing over the grassy ground, and glanced sidelong at the battered car, letting it move slowly past relative to her own motion. When she was level with the adjoining platforms of it and the next rearward car, she banked and sidled back to hover between the cars, flapping furiously in the unsettled air roiling in the pocket formed by the cars’ ends and overhanging roofs. Hastily she extended her legs to touch and hold on to the platform railings.

Wings folded and hooves minced from railing to railing until she was able to step down to the platform itself. Once firmly on the stamped metal sheeting she breathed a sigh and muttered, “Now I know how those squid flyboys feel.” A moment later she was through the door and into the car, glancing around.

All the wounded had been collected in the first car, where they lay on benches and the swept floor. Sunset and Cook, along with several other volunteers, did what they could, moving from one to another. A few of the occupants, patients and attendants alike, called greetings to her over the constant warm wind sweeping through the windows now bare of glass. She nodded back as she ambled along the aisle. “Mister Platter? Ms. Analemma? A moment of your time, please.”


“This sounds like one of those stupid river-crossing puzzles.” Sunset managed to keep her voice down despite the outrage coloring it.

“It is one of those stupid river-crossing puzzles,” Cook pointed out in a more practical tone. “There’s no other way?”

Rose shook her head. “Most of the east-west cargo traffic in this part of the country uses a line farther north that goes through a notch in the Unicorn Range—I gather it was an easier route to build, and it’s more direct. This line winds through a long pass in the Smoky Mountains instead. It’s not all that high, but it’s got a lot of steep grades by railroad standards. From what she told me, they could get away with that because they mostly run short passenger trains on the route, and those are a lot lighter.”

“It’s gonna take forever to get to Tall Tale,” Sunset groaned. “What about the ponies who’re hurt?”

“And every day we’re out here is a day we could be spotted by a wandering enemy airship,” Cook added reluctantly. “Or a day the enemy could occupy the place before we get there.”

“I can’t do anything about it,” Rose stated firmly. “Unless there’s immediate military danger, I’m just a passenger. She respects my rank and she’s willing to work with me, but legally she’s in charge, and she’s the expert.”

When both the other two opened their mouths, she cut them off impatiently. “Look, this isn’t a debate. I gave you two a head’s-up because I’ll need help getting the word out and keeping things organized, okay? I’m sure I can depend on you to keep your cool; I can’t be sure of that about any of the other civilian passengers. I talked with quite a few of them this morning for a little counseling, but that doesn’t mean I really know any of them.”

Cook let out a breath and nodded. “Yes, Captain, I understand.” Sunset still looked rebellious; in equally quiet tones he continued, “Ana, can you stay here and keep things under control? If you can do that, I’ll apprise the other civilian passengers of the plan. Captain, I assume your next task will be to brief the company?”

Sunset’s nostrils flared and her eyes squeezed shut, but when she opened them again she too nodded. “Okay. We’re stuck with things the way they are, so we don’t have any choice. It’s just—”

“I know,” Rose broke in more gently. “If it’s any consolation, I don’t like it either. Yes, Mister Platter, my job’s to make sure the company’s ready to undertake the necessary evolutions.”


The hills and mountains that bounded the Everfree to the north were as untamed as the forest that carpeted their southern extents, though not quite so magically intractable. Deciduous trees dominated the bulk of the wildwood, but even around the junction and town they mixed in almost equal measure with evergreens. As the rails wended to a more northerly course and began climbing toward the taller peaks of the Smokies, the transition progressed apace, but exactly where the Everfree and its resistance to magical intervention ended nopony could say.

As the incline steepened the locomotive gradually slowed until it chugged along no faster than a walk. At last it pulled onto a long flat pony-made bench, another passing loop at its center; steep embankments above and below were reinforced by stonework. A pair of trainponies jumped out and worked the switch so the train could back onto the loop, clearing the through track, then reset it.

All the able-bodied passengers debarked, and more trainponies set to work. On Rose’s orders the company fell out, sitting or lying on the grass and duff in loose groups rather than forming ranks, but no less attentive to her briefing. Behind her Sunset and Cook assisted with moving the walking wounded to what shade the bench possessed.

“All right, you lot, here’s the plan.” Rose raised her voice more out of military theater than any real need. “The switcher doesn’t have the muscle to lug the whole train to the summit like a full-power locomotive could, so it’ll have to pull one car at a time. Once all the cars are at the summit loop, the crew hitches everything up again and we make the downhill run. I’m told that won’t be as tough; the grades are longer, and there isn’t much in the way of reverse slopes.”

Her mouth quirked. “Until this whole fire drill is finished, we need to guard both ends of it, so the company will break into two detachments. Lieutenant, you’ll command the first detachment; I’ll command the second detachment. First detachment, along with the wounded, makes the first run. Second detachment, along with a minimal rail crew, makes the last run.” She went on, detailing which squads made up each detachment, then wound up with, “Any questions?”

“Yes, Ma’am,” said the earth pony in her early twenties who looked both pleased and daunted by the prospect of semi-independent command. “What about the other runs?”

Rose made a face. “Bad enough I’m splitting the company as it is. I’m not going to chop it up into penny-packets.”

The younger mare opened her mouth, then thought better of it. “Yes, Ma’am,” she repeated.

“Anyone else?” Rose looked around but got nothing other than head-shakes and verbal negations. “All right, then. Form up by detachment.” There was a general scramble as the soldiers rose to find their places.


Sunset and Cook sat on the rear platform of the first car, staring back at the crowd as the engine pulled out on its first run. Rose already had turned away, attending to preparations for the rest of the shuttle. The old bench car was filled to capacity with the injured, a few ponies to care for them, a minimal railpony crew, and roughly half the surviving infantry company. Even so, the reduction in load made the switcher more spry, and it chuffed up the pass with vigor.

“A whole day?” Sunset didn’t bother to muffle her appalled words.

Most of a day,” Cook corrected absently. “And that only because the railroaders aren’t planning on taking any breaks. Nopony wants the split to last any longer than absolutely necessary.” He looked over at her. “Let’s go see to our patients.”

Once inside they kept busy enough to relieve the tedium as minutes fell away with the slope. There was little talk aside from brief, clipped questions, answers, and instructions among civilians and soldiers alike—most revolving around the limited care they could provide. The passing landscape evolved from hills to mountains, dense forest dwindled to clumps and stands, sunlight thinned with the haze that gave the range its name. Then, finally, the tilt leveled out as they reached the summit.

The locomotive deposited the first car on a siding smack in the middle of a lengthy cut. Mountainsides rose precipitously on both sides, providing shade and restricting the panorama to narrow slices of the Everfree’s green expanse stretching away to the south and more misty peaks, some rising above the treeline, to the north. The summit cut was kept clear of everything but grass, though a few groves of pine stood farther up the surrounding alpine banks.

The skeleton crew moved quickly and efficiently to send the switcher on its way back down. No sooner had the engine disappeared over the shoulder of the grade than the senior lieutenant directed the troops to leave the car. “The wounded need the room,” she explained in self-conscious tones. “And we need to find the emergency cache the captain mentioned.”

The squad dispatched to search quickly found, near the north end of the cut, a combination shed and water tower containing the promised stockpile. Stale and utilitarian as they were, the food, water, and first-aid supplies were greeted with enormous relief by all and sundry.


So it went. Like clockwork the locomotive reappeared with one carload of passengers after another, headlight heralding its imminent arrival. Afternoon faded through evening to a seemingly endless night, though few of the growing advance party found sleep easy or restful, before morning brightened once more. The lack of other rail traffic was as disturbing as it was convenient. Far-off silhouettes of airships appeared a few times, no more than slow-moving dots in the cloud-spotted sky; at least once bright pinpricks and a glimmer of flame suggested an air-to-air battle. Even tinier specks indicated a few pegasus ponies were braving the potentially hostile skies, though there didn’t seem to be a lot of weather activity.

By midday the piecemeal move was nearly complete. All that remained was to finish the final trip, bringing the last boxcar and the rest of the Guard company. The buzz of conversation picked up as ponies looked forward to reuniting for the next leg of the trip, only to cut off abruptly at a distant, but sharp, bang—followed after a few seconds by a staccato series of blasts from a fading steam whistle.

There was trouble on the line.

Downhill

View Online

The sun was on the verge of setting before the erstwhile passengers of the last run trudged wearily to the summit. By that time those awaiting them had some inkling what had happened, thanks to an impulsive young pegasus colt who’d swept into a breakneck flight downhill, shouts chasing fruitlessly after him. He’d returned much later, worn out and a little dehydrated, with the news a connecting rod had failed spectacularly, destroying a critical drive component and, as it thrashed, rupturing the main tank; the whistle’s distress call had sounded with the last of the steam pressure.

The new arrivals were greeted with exclamations of relief and demands for more details. Most of the soldiers simply grunted and shouldered past, but Rose, after a brief conference with the lieutenants, turned back to the crowd and sat heavily, fatigued muscles trembling slightly. “We were partway up the hill when the engine let go with a bang. They threw on the brake right away—we hadn’t even started falling back yet—and ordered everypony off. I tried to talk ’em into coming with us, but the old coot insisted she couldn’t abandon rolling stock on a through line, especially not mid-slope. She said they had to clear the line by rolling back to the loop we started from, and they’d catch up with us.”

Sunset and Cook weren’t the only listeners to exchange glances. There was no way the elderly earth mare could do anything of the sort, even with the support of her crewmate; she had, in effect, told Rose to leave them behind. Even that assumed they avoided a mishap with the brakes, sending the freewheeling locomotive and boxcar flying off the tracks to smash against rocks or trees.

After a few desultory questions and answers, the audience broke up to assist in the last stages of pitching camp for the night. Without the locomotive, the downhill trip would become a difficult—for some, potentially life-threatening—march on foot. The least they could do to prepare was to get a good night’s sleep for all.

“Rose?” Sunset leaned forward and nuzzled the older mare comfortingly. “You did what you could, okay? You had to get the rest up here safely, and you said yourself she was in charge of the train, right?”

“Yeah,” came the tired-sounding reply. “But—”

“But nothing, Captain,” Cook interrupted firmly. He frowned slightly as he examined her face, then in a gentle tone added, “Are you having a flashback?”

The good eye snapped open. “Uh—”

“Yes, you are,” he decided. “Whatever caused those injuries had to be pretty terrible, and it’s not hard to figure out something like this would bring it up. You feel responsible, and you feel helpless, don’t you?”

A sigh gusted out of the damaged officer. “You are way too good at that, Mister Coo—Platter.”

“Intro psych classes,” Cook murmured with a shrug. “Diplomacy is like a combination of poker and chess. Play the odds or play the other participants, and to do that you have to know how they—and folks in general—tick.”

Sunset glanced at him in shrewd speculation. “And I’ll bet it’s your magical specialty, too. You are way too good at it, and I should know.”

Cook gave her a startled look, and both mares managed a brief snicker, though Rose’s was more of a snort.

“Wish I hadn’t left my phone with Principal Celestia.” Sunset waved a hoof at his unwonted, if momentary, gawk. “The girls would never believe this unless I took a photo.”

“Yes, well, the battery probably would be drained by now anyway,” Cook pointed out a bit testily. “If the portal didn’t do something strange to it or just whisk it away like your pendant.”


A bugle reveille sounded bright and early the next morning. The tune was simple, and to Rose and many of the civilians unfamiliar, but effective—the more so for the unpracticed rendering by the private detailed with malice aforethought to sound it. Ponies all over the summit cut flailed to startled wakefulness. The senior lieutenant high-stepped among the tents, her mostly recovered voice belting out the agenda for breaking camp and starting the march.

The company, of course, accepted this business-as-usual with no more than the usual chaffing, but some of the townsponies raised surly objections. Rose addressed those personally in a brisk, no-nonsense tone. “No time for tea and biscuits. Strike the tents, gear up for travel, rig the shelter halves as travoises for the wounded and infirm, form up for the march—how long do you think that’ll take? Whatever your guess, I can guarantee it’ll be too low. On foot it’s more than a full day to Tall Tale, folks, so we need to get going as soon as we possibly can.”

The troops, most of whom probably could, and did, break camp while half-asleep, were ready in fairly short order, but the rest, as Rose predicted, took longer. The officers took advantage of the delay by assigning a couple of the fresher squads to the task of turning shelter halves into the promised conveyances for those unable to march.

The only ponies excused from the bustle were the few able-bodied pegasus adults. They would catch a few more hours of sleep, then skim down the hill and meet up with the main body over lunch, according to the plan. All of them had made the arduous overnight flight back to recover the locomotive crew, returning with the pair of non-flying ponies cradled in shelter halves rigged with rope to serve as riding slings, and had arrived only a short while before.

At last, though, the three officers paced up and down the meandering lines trailing along much of the cut’s length. Roughly half of the ponies were on each side of the tracks, well away from the space an approaching train would occupy, with elements of the company at the head and tail of each column—for protection, the officers stated, though the additional unspoken reason was to set the pace and rest intervals. Inspection complete, Rose and the sergeant-major settled into place at the front of the columns, with the lieutenants at the back. Then they were off.


They built a cairn. There was no time or energy to spare for digging. The filly had seemed to be doing relatively well . . . until she wasn’t. Her parents, fled or lost, hadn’t made it onto the train. She herself had said little, preoccupied with the injuries done her by a suddenly cruel and incomprehensible world, apparently aggravated by the jolts and bumps of travel by travois. Sunset wept freely, as did others. Cook’s face was iron. Rose looked tired.

The march resumed.


Rations and water were limited; only the wounded received full allotments. Regulation rest and meal breaks were adhered to with rigorous fidelity, though Rose had been forced to ask the particulars of her lieutenants, claiming she was rusty on the Guard’s infantry procedures—which was true enough, if not in quite the fashion they might think. The sun inched across the sky.

Route march was literally the order of the day, at least for the soldiers. The civilians, most of them inexperienced with long-distance alpine hiking, bunched and straggled more unevenly. Pegasus flight was limited to low level, the better to avoid attracting the notice of enemy airships. Sunset and Cook plodded in determined and slightly achey silence, helping where they could, taking their turn at pulling travoises. Rose did as well, but swung along seemingly effortlessly, having kept herself in taut shape and being a firm believer that an officer must be able to do anything her troops can, only better.

Afternoon was wearing into evening. Everyone was thinking wistfully about the dinner break still an eternity away. All that changed with a shout.

“Pegasus!” The sharp-eyed corporal halted momentarily to raise an arm, pointing ahead. Indeed, gliding along a few lengths above the tracks, a mile or more away, was a mare wearing the indigo pillbox cap and tunic of a railroad employee along with a set of packs not unlike the Guard’s. From her body language she was as astonished to see them as they were to see her.


“A couple of airships showed up out of nowhere and blew the snot out of the track, the station, and the yard,” the track inspector admitted frankly. “A few bombs fell in town, which was pretty nasty, but that was about it. We’re pretty sure those just missed the targets.” The ponies crowded around whispered and murmured to each other, but at least no one interrupted.

Rose’s brow furrowed. “Did they land any troops?”

“Uh—come to think of it, no.” The younger pegasus looked nonplused. “They stuck around long enough to be sure they did the job, I guess, then they lit out for somewhere else. Dunno where, but it wasn’t back the way they came. Maybe Vanhoover?”

Sunset spoke up. “Can we get into town?”

“Sure, that shouldn’t be a problem.” She doffed her cap and rubbed the top of her head with the other forehoof. “It’s not like there’s gonna be any traffic until they open the line again.” Her expression turned aggrieved. “My job’s t’ go as far as I can, check for any other problems.”

“If you plan to go as far as the junction, be very careful,” Cook warned. “The enemy still may be there. Even if they aren’t, the Guard company fought a sharp action right in front of town. Not everyone survived, and I’m sure those who didn’t are still there.”

The railroader swallowed. “Maybe I won’t go quite that far, then. At least not by myself.”


“Why didn’t they drop any troops?” Sunset asked in puzzlement. “They sure did at Ponyville, and they sent a bunch on the road after the company.”

Rose turned back from watching the inspector winging away down the track. “The question of the hour. We could speculate all day, but we just don’t have enough information for anything but wild guesses—we don’t even know who or what they are. I’m wondering if they don’t have the resources for a full-scale invasion. They had to secure Ponyville; it’s the gateway to Canterlot, at least from the south. The battalion on the road might have been chasing down the company before it could warn anypony, or sent to secure the junction, or both. Bombing Tall Tale was just a hit-and-run raid, maybe one of a series, if those airships headed off to other targets.” She glanced over to make sure the lieutenants were forming up the columns again.

“That makes no sense. Seize the capital, fine, that’s an excellent first step if one can pull it off.” Cook shook his head. “But one has to be ready for a rapid and thorough follow-through; Equestria’s big enough to put up a stiff fight otherwise, even with the capital taken. Why risk a drawn-out campaign that would bleed one’s country white?”

“Unless . . . the leadership doesn’t expect it to be a drawn-out campaign.” Rose sighed. “Wonderful. Looks like the delusion of a ‘short decisive war’ is universal.”

Sunset bit her lip, then suggested, “Or maybe they’re after something else, whoever they are.” Rose and Cook both looked at her with inquiring expressions, and she went on, “I don’t know what. But it reminds me of Twi’s story about Chrysalis and the changelings, only this time it worked.”

“The princesses, maybe?” Cook hazarded. “All four were there for the festival. But then, they meet fairly often, so that’s not unusual.”

“And we have no idea what happened to them,” Rose growled. She’d met Twilight and corresponded occasionally with the sisters, and liked all of them. Moreover, her officer’s code of honor extended, even if at one remove, to friendly heads of state. “Dead, alive, captured, escaped—not a word. Not even any rumors, at least not yet.”

“We haven’t been in one place long enough to pick up on rumors,” Cook reminded her. “We might hear some in town, though.”

“The sun and moon are still moving,” Sunset pointed out hopefully. “So Celestia and Luna should be okay, at least.”

“Maybe.” Cook grimaced with patent dislike for being a wet blanket. “From my own observation of the process, there’s momentum in the system. Their Highnesses go through the ritual daily to keep up the habit and to minimize effort, but if something’s happened to them, it might be days—or even longer—before we see any cosmological effects.”

“But when Tirek was running around and the other princesses transferred their power to Twi—” Sunset objected.

Cook’s sour chuckle interrupted her. “We both heard that story from Twilight. You know her better than I do. What are the odds she, ah, exaggerated for effect?”

“Oh. Yeah.” Sunset subsided in disappointment.

Perforce the discussion ended there; it was time to get moving again.

Cities

View Online

The rattletrap old pre-steam trolley was hailed as a minor miracle. Paint was mottled and faded where it hadn’t flaked off completely, metal was rusted and dented, wood was gray and splintery, but the wheels still turned and the brakes still worked. The double-size team hauling it was blowing and sweated—not to mention a bit foolhardy—but they’d managed to climb the pass to another bench, where they met the ponies hiking down the right-of-way. Though much too small and light for all the refugees, the obsolete car could carry the wounded and a few caregivers, albeit cheek by jowl, back to Tall Tale more smoothly than by travois. It brought some food and water, but its only passengers were the pair of pegasus ponies who’d volunteered to fly ahead and make what arrangements they could.

Cook shook his head as he watched supplies being carried out and the injured and infirm being carried in. “That brakepony must be crackerjack. If the car had slipped somewhere along the way—”

“Yeah,” replied Sunset with a shudder. “The teamsters coulda been dragged to ribbons.”

Rose stepped up beside them. “Well, with the trains not running, they could pick the best pony for the job.” When the other two turned to her, she added, “The trolley team’s going to rest, as well they should, before heading back downhill. The rest of us will take a short rest too; it’s about time anyway. Then we keep going. We might make better time from here, since we won’t be pulling travoises, but the trolley crew have to be careful not to let the car run away on them, so they’ll be slower.”

The recent arrivals shared more news during the rest stop. The railroad company’s local office was doing what it could to repair and rebuild, but its limited resources made that slow going. The bombing had concentrated mostly on the through line, the station, and the workshops. The ancient trolley was one of the few pieces of rolling stock intact enough, and in the right part of the yard, to use for the rendezvous.

The telegraph still worked, if only locally and intermittently. Vanhoover had suffered a more intensive and widespread airship bombing, spreading across the harbor as well as the rail infrastructure. Naval maneuvering and skirmishing had been reported, though detail was lacking other than the assurance enemy forces had been kept far enough off the coast to preclude bombardment.

Soon enough, though, it was time for the ponies on foot to continue the journey, leaving the trolley’s crew to make their own way.


Tall Tale nestled at the edge of the woodlands fanning out from the Smoky Mountains’ northern slopes. Smaller than Canterlot, but a good deal larger than Ponyville, it boasted a genuine if modest downtown and featured a diverse economy—commerce, lumbering, processing of produce, light industry, even chandlery for the harbors of nearby Vanhoover and the burgeoning needs of airship manufacturing and operation.

“Give it another few decades, and this’ll be a suburb of Vanhoover,” Cook commented idly as the lines of ponies plodded down the last grades. “At least, if city growth here proceeds the same way it does back home.”

“And if whoever’s invaded gives it the chance,” Sunset observed somberly, getting a nod in return.

Little smoke rose from either city this long after the air raids, but some of the damage was visible from their vantage point, high enough to look down, close enough to see at least some detail. A Guard airship patrolled in lazy circles above the urbanized area. The ocean to the west glinted in the summer sunlight; distant pinpoint flashes followed shortly by low, faint rumbles indicated a combined naval-ærial engagement even then in progress.

Rose sat outside the line of march, binoculars trained on the small silhouettes dueling on and above the waves. The pair of unicorns stepped out of the procession and paused beside her. “What do you see, Captain?” asked Cook in low tones, not wanting to startle her.

“Hm?” Rose lowered the binoculars and turned her head. “To tell the truth, not much more than you do. Ironclads—some of them pretty big—steam frigates, a few airships. I don’t know as much about naval affairs, but I think Equestria’s right in that weird gap when ships of the line are disappearing and battleships haven’t shown up quite yet.”

Cook quirked a wry smile. “Defense of territory and commerce protection are bigger priorities than power projection, so Equestria’s never had a large battle fleet. Traditionally it’s relied mostly on frigate-built hulls for speed and cost, though some of them have been pretty big—up to the third rate, if you’re familiar with that system.” He glanced out at the distant battle. “But you’re right about the transition, and I think that may be another reason why you’re not seeing a lot of ‘heavy metal’. Still, there’s something strange about what’s going on out there.”

Sunset, who’d looked rather blank through the esoteric discussion of naval architecture and doctrine, perked up at the implicit question; hers was an agile, voraciously inquisitive mind, if not quite as obsessive about it as either Twilight’s. “Shouldn’t they be . . . I dunno, trying harder?” When both her elders gave her quizzical looks, she elaborated, “I mean, they’re fighting each other, yeah, but—it looks almost like a movie battle. The enemy ships don’t look like they’re making any moves to get past the Guard and attack the city. It’s like they’re here just to fight.”

Rose turned back to the panorama, brow raised. “Like they’re blockading,” she murmured. “Is that it?”

Sunset nodded with growing enthusiasm. “Maybe. I might not’ve noticed, but after the bombing raids and the, what was it, battalion on the road, I guess I was kinda thinking in that direction. It’s like they’re not really invading, they’re just trying to keep the Guard busy and make it hard to move anything around or get anything done.”

“Chop up the railroads and do enough damage generally for everypony to stay busy with repairs or keeping their heads down.” Cook’s eyes narrowed. “If that’s what they’re after, they can’t expect to keep it up forever. That indicates they don’t plan to hold on to Equestria—and they’re on a short time count.”

“Whatever they’re after, Canterlot is the key.” Rose’s mouth firmed. “But the key to what?”

Sunset’s expression had turned increasingly worried through the hypothesizing. “It’s been so long already. Nopony’s heard anything from Canterlot since—since it fell.” Her voice wavered with the last phrase. “What if they’re close to—”

“Ana.” Rose extended her good wing to brush the younger mare’s back. “We can’t do anything about it, whatever it is. We have our own mission. We just have to trust somepony else is in a position to do something about it.”


Word of the approaching fugitives had spread throughout the town. A small delegation met the footsore and exhausted columns at the foot of the mountains and escorted them to a fairground on the outskirts, where a hastily erected marquee tent awaited, lit with lanterns against the darkening evening. Within, at the tent’s back, representatives of the municipal authorities and private organizations stood ready to assist. The civilians were provided temporary lodgings—most in the homes of families who volunteered space, some with relatives, a few with means or credit opting for boarding houses, hotels, or other rooming arrangements. Sunset and Cook, remaining with Rose and the infantry company, watched as the crowd thinned gradually, individuals or groups plodding away with hosts or guides.

“They’re very efficient here,” Rose observed with a trace of envy.

Cook snorted. “Tall Tale’s a big enough town to deal with a small batch of refugees arriving in isolation, Captain, and we’ve been running ahead of the curve since we arrived in Ponyville. If there’s a mass movement of refugees, it hasn’t gotten here yet. Just wait until that happens.” Then his manner softened. “But, yes, Equestria still has that old-world attitude toward hospitality and helping neighbors. It’s one of the things I like about this country.”

“Atten-hut!” The sharp voice cut through the low murmur of the remaining civilians. Its effect on every soldier present was instant and electric; even Rose stiffened, imprinted reflexes translating her normal brace to the same statuesque equine pose. The pair of unicorns beside her turned to see four ponies, in a variety of uniforms and of a variety of ages, just then entering the front of the tent.

“At ease.” The flame-yellow pegasus in the lead wore a singed and damaged flight coverall, gold on blue, and limped noticeably. “Who’s the senior officer here?”

“General Spitfire.” Cook interrupted with a bemused expression. “Weren’t you supposed to be in Canterlot for the festival?”

The major general’s double-take was classic. “Mister Cook. I’d ask what you’re doing here, but that’ll have to wait.” She turned back to the company. “Well?”

The lieutenants and sergeants shuffled; their eyes shifted toward Rose. She, in turn, drew a resigned breath. “Ma’am.”

Spitfire’s brows climbed precipitously. “I think I’d remember a pony like you, but I don’t believe I’ve ever set eyes on you before. Name and rank?”

“Army Captain Rose Brass. Retired. Ma’am.” Tension vibrated in Rose’s voice.

It took only a moment for Spitfire to twig. “Really.” The general gave Cook a trenchant look. “So she’s with you, is she?”

“Yes, General, and her actions saved every life that made it to Tall Tale. I would ask you respectfully to bear that in mind, please.” Cook once more was the professional diplomat, calm and wary.

Sunset stepped forward. “Um, General, Ma’am, it’s true. She—”

A brusque gesture cut her off. “Save it.” The general looked past Rose at the assembled troops. “Listen up. At the moment I’m the senior officer present, but the colonel here is the assigned commanding officer.” She nodded over her shoulder to the tough-looking unicorn stallion on her right. “You’ll be under his orders until we can get you back to your regiment.” After a beat she added, “Oh, and on my authority Captain Brass is relieved of command, so you can go with clear consciences. Colonel?”

Said colonel stepped forward, shadowed by an earth stallion with major’s tabs. “We will conduct you to barracks in Vanhoover for a night’s rest. You’ll be given a day’s pass in the morning. Fall in.”


“All right.” Spitfire looked cool and firm as she sat behind the desk in the borrowed office, facing the other four, including the elderly unicorn mare in a white peaked cap and tunic who’d been on her left at her first appearance. “I’m betting every one of us here has a story to tell. Well, except—” She broke off and peered more closely at the youngest pony present. “Miss Shimmer. It is Sunset Shimmer, isn’t it? Maybe you have a story after all.”

Sunset looked faintly alarmed. “Uh—yeah. Yes, Ma’am. And it’s, um, ‘Ms.’ now. I turned eighteen a while back.”

The general nodded in satisfaction. “I thought you looked vaguely familiar. There was such an uproar when you disappeared; I thought Her Royal Highness was going to have a stroke. Otherwise I might not have recognized you.” Her eyes narrowed at Sunset’s obvious discomfort.

“That . . . that was a long time ago. Ma’am.” Sunset’s eyes pleaded.

One side of Spitfire’s mouth twitched. “You’ll get your chance, young lady. First I want to hear from the esteemed Mister Cook, who seems to be the perennial bad penny.”

Cook sighed and started with the trio’s arrival through the portal. Spitfire listened attentively, waving down interjections from Sunset and, once or twice, Rose until his tale wound to its finish. Afterward, her first question was, “Captain Brass. Do you have this ‘after-action report’ Mister Cook mentioned?”

“I—yes, Ma’am. I’m afraid it’s written, not typed, and it’s in a hardback journal. That was the only—”

“That’s fine, Captain.” Spitfire essayed a faint crooked smile. “I’ve seen worse. You may submit it to me now, if you please.”

With a trapped look, Rose turned her head back to extract the journal from a satchel, then placed it on the blotter.

Spitfire tapped it with the toe of a forehoof. “This is everything, Captain?”

“Yes, Ma’am.” For the first time Rose sounded sure, and she straightened to attention again. “On my honor, my report is complete and correct. I tender it for review.”

“Very good, Captain. Your report is accepted for review. You may stand down.” Spitfire’s tone by contrast was quieter, with less snap. “This seems to be an excellent idea. I may recommend the Guard require such reports in future. Assuming Equestria survives.”

Every face tightened in response to her last observation, and she cleared her throat. “Ms. Shimmer, I’m afraid you’ll have to wait, because I think it’s my turn. If nothing else, I owe that to Mister Cook for being so forthcoming, and because he represents a friendly nation. I’m afraid it’s not a pleasant story.” With that, she began.

Comet

View Online

“. . . It was the first time I’d seen that pattern of flares actually fired off. I hope to heaven it’s the last time. I didn’t like it, but the order was clear: ‘Gather up every unit you can reach and break out any way you can.’” Spitfire’s face and tone were bleak. “There was no way we could get back down to Canterlot and rally anypony. We were doing our best, but we were kitted out for ærobatics, not combat, and we were scattered all over the sky, along with what little regular cavalry there was. All we could do was try to escape. So we did.”

Sunset was sobbing unabashedly into Rose’s chest, enfolded in both her wings. The scarred pegasus face was stormy with anger and outrage. Cook’s was blank from shock and horror. The old unicorn mare plainly had heard the whole tale before, but looked scarcely less grim.

“One of the airships took after my group right away, but the Princess’s Own Flying Squadron are the best flyers in Equestria, and a stern chase is a long chase.” A note of pride briefly touched the general’s words. “They couldn’t get a broadside on us, but they had chase guns crewed by some decent shots. They started taking us down one by one. I’m here now only because at least two of the ’Bolts deliberately—” Her eyes closed and her voice broke. “Even so, I took a couple of grazes and started bleeding out bit by bit. I don’t remember anything else until I came to flat on a deck.” The wine-dark eyes reopened and flicked toward the white-uniformed pony. “The rest of it is Dame Galea’s story.”

“I s’pose an introduction is in order first.” The voice was firm and only slightly creaky. “Colonel Galea, retired, Dame Companion, Order of the Golden Sun.” Cook’s eyebrows rose, which she ignored. “I have . . . some experience with airships. An airshipwright shop in Vanhoover was contracted to cobble up the smallest, fastest, most maneuverable airship they could and pile it with swivel guns and rockets. The goal was to snag a military contract, build more of ’em for the Guard.” She shrugged slightly.

“Not a bad thought, but she uses a lot of experimental machinery—like gasoline engines—so they needed to prove it could work. They hired a crew and asked around for the best skipper they could get.” The seamed face turned wry. “I told ’em I was retired. They went away, but after a while the project’s backer showed up with a barrel of bits. How could I say no?”

Her lips pursed briefly. “She’s a sweet flyer, I will say. The guns are a bit light for the job and the rockets are dodgy, but they’ll do for anything short of a serious warship, sea or air. We were bound for Canterlot and the festival. I think the idea was to catch Their Highnesses’ eyes, but we didn’t get the chance.” Her nostrils flared as she took in a breath.

“Long story short, we were headed in just as the general and the ’ship chasing her were headed out. The crew didn’t like it a bit—civvies, you know, they didn’t sign on for battle—but I accepted action. No choice, really; they might’ve swatted us like a fly otherwise. We were able to whip around and cross their T for a good raking. Couldn’t take ’em down, but we knocked out their bow chasers and played merry hob with their steering. Then we turned and showed ’em our tails.”

Her glance at Spitfire showed a spark of cool amusement. “Didn’t take a genius to see the general was flagging and wasn’t all there. So we stuck out a cargo net and caught ’er mid-air in passing, neat as you please.”

Spitfire cleared her throat. “And then we came back here. Most of the crew were locals, and like Dame Galea said, they didn’t sign on for war.”

“Half of ’em galloped down the gangway yellin’ their heads off how crazy I was. The other half wanted to go hunting enemy ships right that minute.” The old warhorse sighed. “When I said that was suicide, most of them bailed too.”

Rose blinked, coming back to herself. “That had to be before the bombing raid. Any armed airship—well, any airship at all—would be a big juicy target. What happened to it?”

Galea nodded in approval. “She’s not in a hangar, y’see. She’s small enough to fit, just barely, in one of the bigger work sheds. They prob’ly thought it was a warehouse or something of the sort, so they passed over it. She’s fine, snug as a bug in a rug. Needed some repairs and tweaking, but most of that’s done now. Just not sure what t’do with ’er.”

Cook’s expression turned calculating. “We might have a job for her.”


The next morning was gray with low clouds brought by onshore flow, muting what colors the company works possessed. Ruins of at least two hangars and an airship in the open, blackened by fire, lay like gargantuan skeletons at one edge of the complex. Maintenance and repair efforts concentrated on intact or only slightly damaged buildings and yards, including the huge shed looming over the small party approaching its side.

Galea acted as guide, the beacon of her white uniform neat and bright. Behind her trooped Sunset, Cook, and Rose, their manner universally subdued. Even so, once they reached the open rolling doors, they paused, impressed, to look up at the sleek silver-gray shape filling most of the big outbuilding. Oil and gasoline dominated the chemical odors exuded by the ship and its shelter; the sounds of voices and tools echoed. The old colonel turned and beelined across the plank floor, down the length of the ship.

The cylindrical envelope with ogive-tapered ends was fairly typical, similar to early-generation designs familiar to the otherworldly visitors from vintage photographs. The narrow enclosed gondola running like a keel along most of the envelope, by contrast, was a radical departure—well ahead of the more usual boat-hulls dangling on struts or cables. The long slim barrels of quick-firing breechloaders on swivel mounts, unlocked from their stowed positions, jutted menacingly from two large openings amidship, port and starboard, and one around the stern. A row of odd round brackets mounted under the cockpit, currently empty, stood ready to accept pre-loaded rocket tubes; a stack of empty replacement tubes sat by the shed’s side wall.

Rose stared narrow-eyed at the nearest gun as they passed. “Those have to be state of the art here—even ten or twenty years ahead of schedule.” There was a questioning note to her low tones, just loud enough to be audible under the repeated hammering of a sledge or other heavy object on some recalcitrant part.

“I’ll take your word on that, Captain,” Cook replied in kind. “My guess? The need for light, fast guns in the anti-air role would be much bigger here. There are lots of airships in this world—many more than there ever were back home—and of course flying troops.”

Sunset, ahead of them, glanced back briefly. By now she was dry-eyed, but Spitfire’s account of the opening moves in the Battle of Canterlot, and their effect on the princesses, had hit her hard. She had said little since the trio had reunited for breakfast as guests of the local Guard garrison after a night in base officers’ quarters.

“Hey, Mister Moneybags,” came Galea’s rough voice. “Got some folks here t’see ya. May have work for our li’l filly here.”

“Dame Galea,” a cultured masculine voice bantered back. “Such respect you have. Well, let’s see them. I won’t make any promises until—good gracious, it’s Mister Cook!” The beefy white-coated unicorn stallion who had rounded the tail of the gondola stood, brows raised and monocle swinging on its ribbon from a button on his greasy denim coveralls.

“Fancy Pants,” replied Cook with genuine pleasure. “It’s a relief to see you here safe and sound.”

“And you as well.” A puzzled look clouded the other’s face. “But why are you here at all? I should think, with its current travails, Equestria would be the last place in the universe you’d care to visit.”

“Yes, well, we had to bar the door behind us, if you take my meaning,” Cook explained with a slight shrug. “We couldn’t do that from the other side.”

“Ah. I quite see. Of course.” Fancy Pants nodded to the two mares. “And who might your companions be? I presume they came with you through that door?”

“What is this, Old Home Week?” Rose broke in. “Do you know everypony here, Mister Cook?”

Cook’s mouth quirked, but his voice was admirably even. “Ms. Brass, Sunset, this is Fancy Pants, one of Equestria’s foremost industrialists. I should’ve known you’d be the backer of this project, Sir. This is Army Captain Rose Brass, retired, and Ms. Sunset Shimmer, former student at SGU and recent summa cum laude graduate of a school back home. You might say she’s the ultimate reason for my posting to Equestria.”

Fancy Pants levitated his monocle back up for a close examination of the two strangers. “Well met, ladies. If I may presume to answer your question for Mister Cook, Captain, I would point out a good diplomat makes the acquaintance of every prominent individual in the country to which he is accredited, at least to the extent he is able.”

“Okay, I can see that.” Rose didn’t seem entirely persuaded. “But it’s a he—it’s a real coincidence we all just happen to be here in the same city, out of all the cities in the country.”

“Not at all.” The unicorn’s blue mane, somewhat less impeccably coiffured than usual, bobbed as his head nodded toward a bedsheet-size chart posted on the shed’s back wall. “Vanhoover is the principle—almost the only—city of the northwest. You started in Ponyville, if I understand correctly. North, directly toward Canterlot, I can tell you from personal knowledge would have presented too great a hazard. Southward is frontier, being mostly desert, badlands, and other inhospitable terrains. The east is more populous, but more difficult to reach past Canterlot. No. Westward, then north, was the best choice available, and that inevitably would bring you here.”

“And Vanhoover really is a center of airship development, partly because of its maritime tradition,” Cook added. “So if you’re going to cook up a hush-hush experimental aviation project, this is one of the best places to do it.”

A crooked smile flashed under the industrialist’s pencil mustache. “Indeed.” He turned to Sunset. “And have you anything to say, my dear?”

Sunset’s expression when she looked up gave the older stallion pause. Cook interjected, “Before Sunset, ah, transferred from SGU, she was one of Her Royal Highness’s personal students.”

“I see,” Fancy Pants answered in a kindly tone. “These are difficult times for all of us, but I can only imagine how much more so they must be for you, Ms. Shimmer. I will offer no words of empty cheer, but I can say every effort will be bent to rectifying the situation.” Sunset nodded mutely, if not convinced then at least polite.

Abruptly the intermittent hammering ceased. A moment later an equally refined feminine voice called out, “Fancy dear, I finally showed that valve what for!”

“Excellent!” Fancy Pants called back heartily.

“Is that Fleur?” Cook asked with amused surprise.

“Indeed it is! Her levitation is most capable, and I must say wielding heavy tools can be astonishingly therapeutic.”

Moments later a tall, slender unicorn mare of purple-tinged white—clad in another baggy, disreputable denim coverall—put in an appearance, triumphantly levitating a massive sledgehammer and prybar. Her pastel pink mane, streaked with oil and perhaps coolant, was bound up in a practical, if inelegant, bun. On catching sight of the visitors, she bobbled her levitation a bit, but managed to put the heavy tools on a nearby countertop. “Oh! Mister Cook. It is so good to see you.”

She looked a question at Fancy Pants, who replied, “Mister Cook and his friends ensured our rude visitors in Canterlot would be unable to go a-traveling where they ought not. The sad result is, he, Captain Rose Brass, and Ms. Sunset Shimmer are stranded here for the nonce.” He nodded toward the two visiting mares as he introduced them. “Indeed, according to our good airship captain, they desire the services of our fine little brainchild. And what, Mister Cook, would that desire entail?”

Cook laid out the proposal in a few plain phrases, not bothering to dress them up with blandishments or polished verbiage. Fancy Pants frowned thoughtfully. Fleur eyed him sidelong, holding her counsel. Galea and Rose waited with the practiced patience of officers. Sunset just stood gazing into the distance.

At last he gave them all an off-center grin. “Why not? Under the circumstances I doubt our little silver filly can contribute much to the Guard’s strength. If instead she can help by placing our visitors and their secrets beyond the easy reach of our enemies, I consider that a fine and worthy goal. What say you, Fleur my dear? Captain Galea?”

“Why, certainly,” Fleur put in promptly and sincerely. “It would be the least we can do.”

“Mph.” Galea squinted. “We don’t have a crew. We don’t have room or weight allowance for passengers.”

“Tosh.” Fancy Pants waved a forehoof. “There are six of us here, and I’m sure we could persuade a few like-minded sorts to fill out the watch bills, with salaries if naught else. Though we’ll be plain about the hazards, mind.”

Galea opened her mouth, clearly not at all thrilled with the notion of skippering an owner-aboard and complete novices, but a glance at her nominal boss and his air of resolve closed it again, though a small grumble escaped.

“Very good.” Fancy Pants swept the same forehoof toward the nearby gondola. “Then, my friends, I bid you all welcome to the fastest and nimblest airship in Equestria—Comet!”

ENE

View Online

The leisurely pace of refit became a hectic rush. Repairs and adjustments were finished with careful haste. Titles and chain of command were settled. “There’s room for only one captain on a ship. Folks get mighty confused otherwise,” Galea pointed out. “For the duration of the cruise you will be Ms. Brass.” Rose made no comment, accustomed as she was to military traditions and practicalities, and the ship’s master continued, “Wish I had an experienced XO—ah, executive officer—but Mister Fancy Pants will have to do. No offense.”

Fancy Pants merely smiled. “I’ve heard worse, Captain, and it’s only the simple truth.”

Billets were offered discreetly to carefully selected ponies, both civilian and ex-Guard, for a cruise north to put the bundle of experimental technology out of easy reach, which was true enough to serve. Those who accepted, along with the volunteers, were drilled with merciless thoroughness by the old mare under whose orders they’d placed themselves.

“This all might seem like fuss an’ feathers, but our lives may depend on doing everything right and right now,” Galea informed the group during a brief rest. “All of us, even I, need to practice until we can do it all without even thinking about it. ’S also why we looked t’ hire on experienced mechanics and such, ’cause we can’t spare the weeks we’d need t’ teach the fancy stuff before we take off. Break’s over. Back to it!”

In particular, Galea concentrated on the manual of arms for the three quick-firing guns. Sunset and a young unicorn stallion objected when she specifically forbade using any spells in the process. As always, she had a ready answer. “First off, careless spellcasting’s been known to touch off powder—not often, but just once is enough to ruin your day. More importantly, everypony has to do the exact same things in the exact same ways, even if they aren’t always the best ways for any single pony. Otherwise a designer can’t count on her gadgets being used, or an officer can’t count on her orders being carried out, exactly the way she has in mind. That never ends well, I can tell you.”

She tossed her head in Rose’s direction. “When Ms. Brass there took command in the heat of battle, she knew right away how the company was supposed to work. If all the company’s squads willy-nilly did things differently, there’s no way she could’ve figured out how to run it in time to save the day, and you, Ms. Analemma, wouldn’t be around to have this discussion.”

Sunset, subdued, kept her mouth shut after that, but the brash young stallion couldn’t resist asking, “Why even bother with all this claptrap, then? Why not just shoot magical bolts?”

With elaborate patience the old veteran replied, “Guns this size have longer range and are more consistent, and they hit harder than all but the most powerful unicorns or the princesses. B’sides, any fumbling idiot of any tribe can be trained t’ use ’em.” Galea’s lips had pursed as if she was considering a continuation of her lecture, but instead she went on with, “Go through it again, and don’t fumble it this time.”

An eleventh-hour debate over the rockets was cut short by a peremptory command not to bother with them. “In fact, just dismount the brackets,” Galea added with a wave toward the fittings in question. “If we don’t carry any rockets, we won’t need ’em, and every ounce of weight we cut lets us carry another ounce of food, water, or fuel.”

Several ponies burst out with protests, and she stamped the same hoof. “Knock it off! I gave an order, and I expect it to be carried out. You.” She pointed at one of the hired mechanics. “Get to work.”

Fancy Pants, whose brows had risen, but who’d declined to intervene, murmured to the mechanic as he passed, “What the captain says goes, my good fellow, and she won’t always have time to explain herself. Best to accustom yourself to that now.” He cocked his head as the frowning earth pony paused. “Since we have a moment, however, I will point out this is to be a ferry cruise, not a hunting expedition. The rockets are designed for attack, and are almost useless in defense. They are heavy, potentially hazardous to carry for extended periods, and not terribly accurate. Unlike the guns, they are restricted to forward fire and cannot reach out to long range. So we leave them behind.” The mechanic grumbled, but he did the job.

Weight allowances were calculated and supplies purchased, most at inflated prices as the ongoing crisis dragged at the country’s economy. Fancy and Fleur spent bits like water. Cook haggled. Sunset and Rose fetched, along with a few other ponies. A second air raid, more desultory but still frightening, followed by another naval skirmish only a few miles offshore lent urgency to the last hours. Boxes, crates, barrels, drums, and bags were loaded in a feverish hurry.

Then—suddenly enough to be a little disorienting—they were ready. Galea gave the order to board. An understrength ground crew of company employees who hadn’t disappeared in the wake of the latest attacks slowly hauled the airship, small only compared to others of her kind, out of the shed. Smoke flavored the light breeze and a few bits of flame still flickered here and there across the city, almost the only illumination. The ship’s bell sounded a crisp signal to cast off, the ground crew let go the mooring lines, and Comet rose smoothly into the night sky.


By sunrise the swift little airship was well out over the northwestern wilderness. Golden glory silhouetted the dragon’s spine of the Unicorn Range, its jagged peaks marching more or less parallel to their east-northeasterly course. The broad lowland between the mountains to the east and the ocean over the western horizon couldn’t make up its mind whether to be taiga or cold steppe; thin patchy coniferous woods rose from otherwise grassy plains dotted with clumps of colorful summer flowers just becoming visible as the sun rose. Puffy clouds obscured parts of the surrounding panorama; wisps above were painted with dawn colors.

“I’m afraid that’s outside my expertise, Ms. Brass.” A parka-clad Cook raised his voice over the omnipresent rattle and vibration. The gondola’s tube-steel structural network, trussed deck, and exterior cladding of thin corrugated sheet metal were built for minimum weight rather than maximum quiet or shelter. Even during high summer the interior was cold and drafty at cruising height, and it would only get worse as they continued north.

“What? But Mister Platter, you know everything,” The newly arrived Rose, equally bundled up, protested straight-faced as she stepped up beside him.

Cook lowered Rose’s borrowed pair of binoculars, which despite their altered outward appearance retained the superior optics of digital-age technology, and offered them to the pegasus who’d come to relieve him as aft look-out. “All right, you’ve gotten back some of your own. You wouldn’t be the first to let me know I have a terrible sense of humor.” He turned back to the unglazed aft wrap-around window, through which the tail gun pointed directly astern, locked in place until needed. His thoughtful gaze ranged over the landscape scrolling away below—slowly for one accustomed to jet airliners; quickly for one who was not. “Geology? Climate? Magic? Some combination? I have no idea why that, ah, habitat looks the way it does, and I suspect nopony on the ship has the background to tell us.” He lowered his voice still further. “I doubt the science exists here, for that matter. After all, back home it’s only a few decades old.”

Rose cleared her throat and said, “I relieve you, Mister Platter.”

“I stand relieved, Ms. Brass.” After a beat Cook added, “How are you feeling?”

The pegasus rustled her wings but didn’t answer right away. When she did her voice was distant. “I feel strange. Excited. A little confined, maybe. I guess that’s pegasus instinct talking. But . . . I also know I shouldn’t be out there right now, and even the instinct agrees. My duties are here, and I don’t have enough practice at flying just to jump out of an airship—how far up?”

“You tell me,” Galea’s voice came from behind them. They turned their heads to see her, also wearing heavy cold-weather gear, shrugging through the windblock curtain between the deck-to-overhead ammunition racks that separated the gun position from the rest of the mostly open gondola. “We’re flying short in the pegasus department. I’d prefer t’ have at least one more aboard, especially given your lack of experience, Ms. Brass, but it is what it is. Now. How high are we?”

Cook gave Rose an encouraging nod before ambling toward the curtain. “I’ll go check on Analemma and leave the two of you to it.”

“Ah—” Rose’s brow furrowed as she watched him depart. “As high as we can go safely and still breathe, Ma’am.”

“Good guess. But you were the one talking about pegasus instinct. What does that tell you?”

By the time Galea finished putting her through her paces, in between sweeps of the sky around and land below, Rose learned her sense of direction and altitude was “fair t’ middling” by pegasus standards, which meant quite good compared to a typical unicorn or earth pony. “Why, I knew one stallion who could tell barometric altitude t’ a hoof’s-breadth and compass direction t’ less than a point,” the old guardspony claimed. “But for all sorts o’ reasons, I wouldn’t hold you t’ such a preposterous measure, Ms. Brass. You’re doing fine.”


“Ana?” Cook crowded to one side of the passage, right beside an upper cot mounded with blankets. The over-and-under cot pairs, slung like stretchers from horizontal supports and similarly piled high against the chill, were arranged foursquare at the gondola’s midsection. The port and starboard gun positions sat between and outboard, screened off by more ammo racks and curtains; the open space in the middle served for all purposes normally accommodated with compartments such as wardrooms or lounges. Forward and aft, nets strung from vertical supports held supply containers in place, leaving a central gangway clear for passage.

The only response was a muffled noise and brief seismic activity shifting the fabric hills and hummocks. Cook prodded the blanketscape with a forehoof. “Ana, you need to eat something. I know you skipped supper last night. I brought you some breakfast.” He proffered a bag of mixed dried fruit and a canteen, both enveloped in the pale gray aura of his levitation.

Another stir was followed by a sigh and the appearance of a flame-colored muzzle and forelock. “Just leave it,” the normally throaty voice croaked.

Cook ignored the implicit dismissal, instead asking, “How are you feeling?”

That brought all of Sunset’s head out from under the covers to bend the full force of a glare on him. “How do you think I’m feeling? I just found out Celestia—and Luna and Cadance—are lawn ornaments and Twilight and her friends are missing,” she hissed. “And I can’t do a da—a thing about it.”

Cook nodded with apparent calm. “Yes. I doubt there’s a pony aboard who isn’t feeling at least an echo of that sentiment, though most of them probably don’t have such personal connections. The ones who do . . . Fancy Pants, certainly. Fleur, probably. Dame Galea, perhaps. Ms. Brass and I, to some extent. Even we didn’t grow up with Celestia in our lives as you did.” He tucked the rough-and-ready meal between the cot’s edge and the outermost blanket. “But you really do need to eat now. And drink.”

Mechanically Sunset obeyed, her own crimson magic opening the bag and canteen, followed by moving chunks of fruit to her mouth for chewing and swallowing. Cook sat and watched without speaking. Finally the younger unicorn paused long enough to say quietly, “Sorry, Uncle Silver. I know everypony has to be hurting. It’s just—”

“Hey, so long as you pull your weight, nopony’s going to blame you for feeling down, okay?” Cook poked the blankets again. “You’ll be up for your next watch, right?”

“Yeah.” Sunset drew a deep breath. “Yeah, I’ll be up for it. Gotta keep my eye on the ball.”

Cook gave her a tired smile, then to her surprise leaned in for a brief familial nuzzle. “Okay. I just had a long night, so I need to hit the sack myself. I’ll see you later.”


By the time Sunset, in yet another parka, showed up a few minutes early for her watch, the isolated clouds had blended into an uninterrupted deck. The fluffy carpet stretched to the horizon, brilliant in the afternoon sun other than the small shadow of Comet herself racing along below and to the east.

Rose gave the younger pony a searching look as she offered up the binoculars. “Hey. You okay, Ana?”

“I relieve you, Ms. Brass,” Sunset said in place of answering.

Rose rolled her eyes, but responded, “I stand relieved, Ms. Analemma. Now. Are you okay?”

“No.” The unicorn sat and raised the binoculars for an initial sweep. “But I’m not gonna be okay for a while. Uncle Silver reminded me nopony’s gonna be okay for a while. Just . . . don’t ask anything else. Please.”

The officer and social worker heaved a conflicted sigh. “Fine. I won’t ask if you have any questions, then.”

Despite her mood Sunset lit with a brief, tight smile. “Sneaky. You’re not gonna go to bed until I ask ’em, are you?”

Rose didn’t bother to say anything, instead brushing Sunset’s back once with her good wing.

It was the unicorn’s turn to gust a deep breath. “I guess I could use some distraction—not from keeping a look-out,” she added hastily. “Um. Why are you here instead of up in the cockpit? I mean—” The binoculars came down long enough for an apologetic glance. “—One eye, right?”

“I’m not an engineer—at least, the kind of engineer an airship needs. I can navigate, but Dame Galea, Mister Fancy Pants, and even Ms. Fleur are better at aviation navigation than I am. I definitely am not a pilot. That leaves look-out, and I can use experience to make up a little for the lost eye by knowing where and how to look.”

Sunset grunted an absent syllable. “The only other question I can think of right now is the whole rank thing. Galea is both a captain and a colonel—and a knight too, I guess. You’re a captain, but it seems like Galea outranks you. I mean, I get that it would be too confusing for two ponies to be called ‘captain’ on the same ship, but I don’t understand the rest of it.”

Rose snorted a laugh. “Yeah, that’s another one for the ‘weird military traditions’ column. Okay, it’s like this, at least back home, though it sounds like the story’s kinda similar here. Back before gunpowder, the main way naval battles were fought was by getting close to enemy ships and boarding them with soldiers. There are lots of other details, but those aren’t important right now.” She paused until Sunset nodded in acknowledgement.

“At the time, a company was any independent body of troops, as small as twenty or as large as several hundred, and a captain was the leader of a company. That meant even if he didn’t have any experience with ships, the captain was in charge. The pilot was the senior seafarer, I think, and he tried to advise, if the captain wasn’t too full of himself to listen,” Rose appended wryly.

“When cannon took over, navies started going their own way, and as armies and navies got bigger, they needed more officer ranks—well, and enlisted grades and rates too, but that’s a whole different subject. Armies added new ranks above captain, but navies added new ranks below captain, so it’s ended up that an army captain’s fairly low, equivalent to a navy lieutenant (senior grade), but a navy captain’s equivalent to an army colonel.”

The pegasus concluded ruefully, “Just to make things even more complicated, a navy officer in charge of a ship is called ‘captain’ no matter what her rank is, and that seems to be how they do it here for airships too even if they’re army units. Anyway, it’s a real pain when the services try to work together, but no one wants to give up their cherished traditions, so we just put up with it and muddle along.”

Sunset cracked another smile at Rose’s droll tone as she leaned over the lip of the window to look at the cloud deck underneath them. Then she stiffened. “Rose.” The urgency in her voice brought the pegasus up next to her; the reason for it brought a curse to the older pony’s lips.

“Got it. You keep watching.” Rose spun to the tubular signal bell and shoved a hoof through the wooden ring dangling from it. With a yank she pulled down the muffle, then sounded the bell with a rapid clamor followed by a slower sequence for azimuth and another for elevation.

Seconds later the main bell rang “beat to quarters”, and there was bedlam.

Discipline

View Online

Without hesitation Rose rang out “gun crewed” followed by “aft”. When she turned back Sunset was gaping at her. “What?” she yelled over the increasing thunder of the engines and resulting racket in the ship’s structure. “We’re already here, aren’t we? I’ll load.”

The younger mare blinked, then shoved the binoculars into a protective bin bolted to the trusswork and shut the lid with a hoof. “Uh, yeah.” She skittered around the breech of the gun and settled her barrel and belly on the cradle mounted to the carriage’s right side. One forehoof struck at a big toggle, unlocking the gun; the other landed near, but not on, the trigger pedal. Her hind hooves briefly danced left and right on the checkered deck plating. The long, slender tube obediently swung back and forth. “Gun unlocked. Traverse good.” She shifted her weight to force the gun up and down slightly. “Elevation good.” Her head ducked for a look through the spiderweb sight. “Sights clear.”

Behind her the bell signaled “gun ready” and “aft”, followed by a sense of movement as Rose went to the starboard ammunition rack and pulled out a clip of rounds. The corner of her eye caught the clip being snapped onto the deck cleats that would hold the set of rounds in place, within easy reach for loading but unable to roll across the possibly unsteady deck.

Her breathing hitched, then resumed, faster and shallower. Before it had been training and theory. Now she almost certainly was about to fire her first shots in battle. Tachypsychia and the floating, unreal feeling of stress and fight-or-flight set in. Her eyes dilated and sweat erupted across her entire hide despite the freezing cold.

Rose, predictably, didn’t miss the signs. “You okay?” she shouted as she offered a mutated pair of range plugs from her personal gear.

“Y-yeah. I think so.” Sunset levitated the hearing protectors to her ears, stuffing them in and adjusting them with a grimace.

The wing brushed along her back again and Rose’s holler came thin and faint through the earplugs. “It’s tough, I know, but every life on this ship depends on how well we all do in this fight. You can do this.”

Sunset took a deep breath, nodded, and hunkered down both physically and mentally as Rose crammed another pair of range plugs into her own ears.


Comet dropped, if not like a stone then far more precipitously than any airship should. Even so Galea put on a bravura display of talent and experience, trimming the interceptor straight and level as it stooped, a silver-gray falcon. Just off the port quarter, seemingly close enough to touch, the top of a far larger envelope appeared nearly bow-on over the rim of the broad aft gunport in front of Sunset and Rose.

A distant bell, barely audible through their range plugs, ordered “fire as you bear”. The pegasus scooped the top round off the stack and slammed it into the breech. Already the enemy airship loomed ominously; it would be a mere moment before the other gondola came into view and the crew spotted them in return.

They cleared the lower curve of the enemy’s gasbag. Showtime.

The first rounds flew from port and after guns almost simultaneously. Alchemical tracers glowed angry red as they shrank to pinpoints with distance. Sunset had time for only a single snapshot image of the deck. Frantic crew running to action stations with their distinctive gorilla-like gait. Stacks of supplies—and a last array of bombs awaiting an upcoming fire mission. A . . . tapestry, dangling from rigging and whipping in the slipstream, rust-brown stains smothering the rich embroidery of its tattered lower reaches.

Fragments of memory flooded her mind. A visit to the palace with a group of other new students, now a decade or more past. Hide-and-seek in the corridors. Wriggling behind the self-same wall hanging with muffled giggles. Canterlot burning so much more recently, the white towers and wings of the palace glimpsed through shreds of smoke. Thick blue-gray haze over a town littered with bodies. An innocent filly dead of her wounds and a rough journey away from her ruined home, laid alone and bereft under a pile of stones beside the railroad tracks.

Imagination crowded in as well. Celestia still and dark as Discord once was. Twilight missing, captured, killed on some nameless ground. The nation of her birth decapitated and trampled by intruders, struggling to cope. The explosions and havoc of combat, already diminished by hearing protection, faded completely. The hiss of her breaths and the pounding of her heart filled her ears, her whole body. The fleeting seconds oozed by one after another as she and the portside gunner threw round after round at the larger airship, gradually elevating the tubes as their ship fell toward the sheltering cloud deck below.

One of the high-explosive rounds found the bombs. A massive blast ripped open the boatlike hull’s topdeck and starboard tumblehome. Flames licked across the surrounding wood and steel. Cables parted, flailing and deadly. The battered gondola fell with a jerk, left dangling at a sharp angle. Fragments, crates, and crew members living or not slid off and rained down. The crippled enemy began to veer ponderously with loss of steering. Then they were past.

Rose was shouting at her. Rose wasn’t loading. Sunset’s alicorn lit. The remaining rounds in the ready stack lit up as well. Sunset leaned, raising the gun’s muzzle as far as it would go. Without looking back Sunset fumbled the first round into the breech and fired again. The round arced up, glanced off the bellied curve of the hull’s underside, exploded gaudily. She loaded another and sent it on its way. This one missed the other ship’s gondola entirely, instead plowing into the envelope and bursting within.

Rose shoved closer, metal wing covering the breech. Sunset dropped the rest of the rounds to clang and roll on the deck in favor of wrenching at the wing. Rose’s face contorted, a nightmare mask of pain, anger, and scars. The other wing came up and slashed horizontally. Sunset’s alicorn vibrated painfully and her whole head rang; the levitation popped like a bubble. Rose was inches away, mouth working with another shout, breath hot on her face. Abruptly the roar and tumult surrounding her burst in again, tinny and faraway through the plugs, accompanied by a steady high-pitched tone that faded only gradually.

“—cease fire! We’re done! Shut it down!” Rose was livid with fury far beyond any she’d shown the young unicorn before.

She stared uncomprehendingly. She wasn’t done destroying the enemy, blowing to oblivion those who’d sown such horror and grief in so many—in her.

“That’s enough, Sunset. Get off the gun now.” The officer’s command voice was hard as iron, but more controlled than before.

Sunset trembled as the grip of rage and adrenalin loosened. Her eyes squeezed shut. Bile rose. Shocky shivers rolled in waves down her body. Rose helped her off the gunner saddle. She staggered, rubber-legged, before collapsing on the deck in the corner where the portside bulkhead met the ammunition rack, blind with tears.

When they reached the cloud deck, fog rolled in to dim the brightness of high-altitude sunlight. The ship steadied, though the engines’ rumble abated only slightly as the pilot raced to put distance between them and the site of the brief, bloody ambush. At last the noise reduced to a growl as they resumed cruising, but they did not regain altitude.

Less than a minute later Galea stalked into the aft gun position. At sight of her expression Rose braced to attention. Sunset still sprawled on the cold deck.

“Ms. Brass,” the captain snapped. “Did I or did I not ring ‘cease fire’?”

“You did, Ma’am.” Rose’s voice was leached of all emotion.

“Then what in Tartarus was that?” A skinny arm waved at the gun and the port.

“No excuse, Ma’am.”

“Were you shooting or loading, Ms. Brass?”

Rose swallowed. “. . . Loading, Ma’am.”

Galea stepped closer. “If anything like that happens again, Ms. Brass, we set down at the nearest settlement and all three of you are off this ship. I will. Not. Tolerate. Breaches in discipline of that magnitude. Is that clear?”

Rose stiffened even more, gaze well above her commanding officer’s head, and barked, “Ma’am yes Ma’am!”

The old unicorn’s mouth compressed and she searched the younger pony’s face. “It’s your job to tell them that. And make it stick.” Without another word she wheeled and left.

Rose sat with a thump, damaged wing dangling, and looked over at the exhausted, withdrawn unicorn filly still artificially half-deaf from the range plugs. “Oh, Sunset,” she whispered and shook her head.


A tentative Sunset stepped into the greenhouse cockpit and squinted against the sunlight slanting through the portside glazing. “C-captain?” she asked in a small voice. “Permission to enter?”

Galea, poring over maps on the compact chart table, looked up. “Ms. Analemma,” she acknowledged coolly. “Permission granted.” The pilot and engineer studiously kept their attention on their instruments, doing their best to ignore the byplay—and tension—behind them.

The younger unicorn straightened. “I want to apologize. Ma’am. I . . . I let my temper—” Her voice faltered and she bit her lip, then inhaled deeply. “I have no excuse, Ma’am.”

The old colonel’s face might have softened by a hair. “Ms. Analemma, let me tell you something. Getting worked up to start shooting is hard enough, but another reason for military discipline is t’ make sure folks stop shooting on command even when the situation’s confused—or they’re confused. You failed.” Sunset lowered her head and looked down at the deck.

“Now, you haven’t had the training Ms. Brass has, or I have, or some of the hired crew have,” the dispassionate voice continued. “But you’re a smart filly. You knew full well what you were doing, and what you weren’t doing. I gather you’ve had trouble with your temper before, and you’re trying to work on that. Good for you. Try harder.” The last words were firm, almost harsh. “Dismissed.”

“Y-yes, Ma’am.” Sunset turned and retreated through the heavy curtain separating the small chamber from the rest of the gondola. Glumly she trudged aft to the central open space everypony had taken to calling “the plaza”.

Rose lay on her belly at its middle, her right wing fully spread beside her. One of the earth-pony mechanics leaned over it intently, operating on its bent pinions and stripped gears with the finest tools on the ship. Cook sat nearby, watching with a resigned expression.

Sunset caught her breath, and her eyes swam again before she blinked away the moisture. She advanced into the plaza, an oasis of light through the port waist gun’s curtain with the airship once more scudding along above the clouds. “Oh, Rose—I’m so sorry,” she choked out before sitting in front of the older mare.

The pegasus came back from her preoccupied reverie and looked up. “Ana. What happened?” Her tone was as emotionless as Galea’s.

“Uh—when? Just now or, um, earlier?” Sunset’s brow furrowed in honest perplexity.

Rose’s mouth twitched before she tamped it straight again. “Now that you mention it, how about both?”

Sunset’s ears flagged. “Captain Galea gave me a lecture. Then she dismissed me.”

“Mm-hm.” That seemed exactly the answer Rose expected. “And?”

The unicorn looked away. “I lost my temper. There was a . . . a tapestry hanging from some of the cables. With blood on it.” The dam burst. In a rush Sunset described the memories sparked by the horrible trophy, the thoughts and images tumbling through her head, the pain and wrath, the burning need to strike back, the ugly satisfaction as she did. By the time she finished, her head drooped and her voice had fallen to a whisper in shame. “And then I hurt you. That feels even worse than all the rest of it put together.”

“Apology accepted.” If Rose’s voice hadn’t regained its warmth, at least it had thawed. “That makes more sense. It caught you by surprise, didn’t it? The tapestry, and the way it pulled everything out.”

“Y-yeah. I really, really wasn’t expecting that.” Sunset shook her head. “I thought I was ready for anything, and I could deal with it. Then—”

“Okay,” Rose interrupted. “I get it. But how do you feel now?”

Sunset thought long and hard about that. “I don’t know. I feel all mixed up.” She looked up again, searching for answers in the other’s scarred face.

“Of course you do.” It was Rose’s turn to think. “Try this. What you’re feeling now is like a rope. Tell me about the braids in the rope, and the threads in the braids.”


The mechanic worked on repairing Rose’s wing. Rose worked on repairing Sunset’s state of mind. Cook sat by almost silently, venturing only an occasional response to a question from one or the other of the mares; hints of his inner disquiet occasionally glinted through the guarded mien of his profession.

Other ponies came and went, few staying for long in the sometimes stormy mood hovering in the plaza. It was evening, with the sun just set, before both efforts were finished. “Good as new,” the earth stallion pronounced with exaggerated heartiness. “Shouldn’t have any trouble with it now—at least, the mechanisms. Can’t speak to the spellwork.”

“I think it should be fine.” Sunset’s tone was diffident. “It doesn’t seem to be damaged, at least. I’m sorry, Rose. I really am.”

“I know,” Rose told her with a sigh. “You were out of your head when you did it.” She nodded at Sunset’s wince. “It’s an expensive, difficult lesson. Make it worth the cost.”

“I don’t want any more of those.” Sunset managed a brief, fragile smile. “It feels like I’ve had enough for a lifetime.”

Weather

View Online

“Ms. Brass.” The urgency of the hissed words punched a button deep in Rose’s brain. She woke with a start and a grunt, and the low voice went on, “Um, Ms. Brass, Mister Fancy Pants wants you up in the cockpit.”

“. . . Time izzit?” she mumbled as she blinked away the sleep. The gondola was dark but just as noisy as ever. It was astonishing what one could get used to—a rattly airship, a swaying train car, a sandbagged bunker in a war zone. Only the soft glow of enchanted crystals, set in fixtures as night lights, prevented falls or barked limbs. There weren’t many; enchantments were, relatively speaking, expensive and work-intensive, but the small lamps were lightweight, required no external power or fuel, and posed no fire hazard.

Her half-waking mind went back to Sunset’s theorizing about why Equestria was going through an Industrial Revolution at all, based on the vantage point she’d gained after living and going to school in a world nearly a century and a half ahead in engineering. “Technology scales up logarithmically,” she’d lectured to pass the time as they stumbled through the Everfree. “Magic doesn’t; it’s purely arithmetic, as far as I can tell. A single pony with a crane can lift more, and do it more efficiently, than a whole crew of unicorns. One locomotive can pull a bigger train faster than a team, even magically strong earth ponies.”

When Cook asked about enchanted artifacts with the air of a vaudevillian offering a straight line, Sunset replied, “Think of them more like music boxes or fine clocks, the kind of thing an individual craftspony makes. It takes a lot of time and effort—and magic too, of course. So they’re at least as rare and expensive as one of those fancy machines, which means they’re reserved for things you can’t do any other way, things that make it worthwhile to go to the effort and expense, or, um, conspicuous consumption.”

Cook added with an arch expression, “Sunset wrote a paper for one of her senior classes. It might be the only high-school thesis ever classified as code-word material. I submitted a copy to my bosses. They liked it.”

Rose couldn’t help smiling at the memory, which improved her mood. She needed it, given the middle-of-the-night answer she received about the time.


“Ah, Ms. Brass,” Fancy Pants greeted her when she shrugged through the blackout curtain into the slightly better lit cockpit. Here, as elsewhere in the airship, the state of the art was employed—in this case low-watt electric incandescent lights subdued by thin frosted glass held in steel-wire safety cages, partly to preserve night vision, partly to limit reflections from the greenhouse-style glazing.

“Mister Fancy Pants,” Rose replied. “You rang?”

A brief chuckle greeted this sally. “I did indeed. I need a second opinion from a pegasus, and you, of course, are the only one available.”

“Oh?”

“Yes.” The stallion’s manner shifted. “What is our altitude, Ms. Brass?”

Rose closed her eyes and reached inward. “It’s . . . we’re descending, I think, Sir. If the cloud deck is still out there, we’re in it, probably.”

Fancy Pants exchanged a glance with the pilot and engineer. “I think we can consider the instruments confirmed, then.”

“Is there a problem?” Rose asked a bit more sharply.

“I don’t believe so, at least not yet.” The unicorn nodded upward. “As we proceed northward, temperatures continue to fall. And there are other conditions to consider as well. Together, I suspect, they mean icing.”

“And more weight on the envelope means we lose altitude.” Rose’s nostrils flared. “What can we do about it?”

“Not a great deal, I’m afraid.” Fancy Pants shrugged. “Comet was not designed to operate this far into the boreal regions. If worse comes to worst, we may have to set down and do what we can to scrape off at least some of it. And hope none of the airscrews throw large chunks against the envelope. Our gas capacity is limited compared to other airships, so we can’t afford to lose much of it.”

Rose cleared her throat. “Can we get to cloud-top level? I could use that as a work platform to do some scraping.”

The look she got in return was dubious. “Even if we could, Ms. Brass, it would be far too much labor for any single pony—not to mention other considerations in your particular case.” Fancy Pants bobbed his head toward the prosthetic wing. “I appreciate your willingness, but I’m afraid it simply isn’t practical.”

“Yes, Sir.” Rose shifted her weight uncomfortably, but couldn’t gainsay the reminder, unspoken before ears not privy to her real background, she lacked enough or indeed any practice with cloudwalking. If the problem had been more immediate or the stakes greater, it might have been worth the risk—but not for mere inconvenience or even nuisance. Before she could muster any further response, the world let them know the discussion was moot.

Their hooves left the deck. For a seemingly endless moment they were suspended in mid-air before slamming back to the checkered plating with jarring force. Comet groaned and creaked, containers thumped and rattled, startled shouts and curses floated forward from the bunks aft of them.

Fancy Pants whirled to stare at the glazing around the nose of the cockpit. Backed by night darkness and thick clouds, the panes showed nothing but black aside from a brief, distant flicker of light. Without turning he asked, “Ms. Brass, what can you tell me now?”

“I—” Once more the pegasus concentrated. “I don’t know, Mister Fancy Pants. Something isn’t right, I can tell that much, but—”

“Sir,” the engineer cut in. “Barometric pressure.” He pointed with a forehoof.

“Falling. Of course.” Fancy Pants glanced aside at Rose, who scowled and nodded.


It took Galea only a couple of minutes to put in an appearance, barging into the cockpit, levitation still fastening a parka around her thin body. “I have the conn, Mister Fancy Pants,” she stated crisply. “Report.” Her voice was wavery not from age, but from the airship’s continued antics, bouncing and wobbling randomly. More flickers briefly lit the small chamber, less distant now, but any accompanying rumbles were inaudible over the structural, mechanical, and vocal ruckus filling the gondola.

“You have the conn, Captain,” Fancy Pants replied dutifully before rattling off a quick précis of events since calling for Rose’s presence.

The captain snorted. “Right. Fancy, head back and get everypony and everything battened down, including yourself. Send up an additional pilot and engineer. Ms. Brass, stay here.”

A chorus of acknowledgements came back, followed by Rose adding, “Barometric pressure still falling, Ma’am. Seems to be accelerating.”

Galea nodded absently. “Don’t look at the instruments, Ms. Brass. I don’t want your internal impressions influenced by them.”

“Yes, Ma’am.” Rose bit her lip briefly. “Shall I keep watch instead?”

“Might as well.” A forehoof waved forward. “Situation like this we can use all the eyes we can get, even if it’s only one more.” The matter-of-fact tone of acceptance stifled any urge on Rose’s part toward resentment, not that she was sensitive about her loss at this late date.

Rose stepped up beside the helm and peered out as captain, pilot, and engineer conferred in low tones. She could tell they were rising, not falling as they had been just a few short minutes ago. Still, when the gondola suddenly emerged into clear air, she caught her breath. “Captain!”

“I see it,” a disturbed voice said behind her, even the old veteran’s sangfroid shaken.

The cloud deck still spread out just below them, to the horizon as far as they could tell, white and ghostly in the crescent moon and the stars strewn thickly across the sky to either side. Just before them, however, towered a gigantic column limned in stark light and shadow that, invisible beyond the tapered nose of the envelope, spread into an anvil shape somewhere high above. Lightning raced up and down its breadth, accompanying thunder now clearly audible even through the complaints of ship and crew alike. The first spatters of windblown precipitation, frozen at this height and temperature, presaged the gauntlet yet to come.


The little airship rose in fits and starts, carried like a leaf on powerful updrafts. Galea’s orders came in a steady stream. The paired pilots and engineers wrestled with their controls, sometimes by main force. Rose simply did her best to keep her feet and answer questions flung at her, corroborating or sometimes contradicting the dials and indicators already near the edge of their tolerance. The massive storm loomed ever closer, lightning occasionally reaching out toward them, hail and sleet bombarding envelope and gondola from seemingly every direction.

Fabric and metal sheeting drummed. Tubing and plating shrieked. Thunder pounded. Engines raced, sometimes beyond designed limits. If there were screams, none of them could hear; even Galea was reduced to gestures and signals in the moments when turbulence wasn’t simply shaking them like dolls.

The double-paned glazing began to star. Wrenching sounds joined the cacophany as rivets sheared, shedding squares of cladding like shingles. The whole ship rocked and swayed, juddered and vibrated. The pillar of cloud became a wall as they closed on it. Galea’s alicorn lit more brightly than Rose had seen before, and the unicorn grimaced in concentration. Another bolt flashed and boomed simultaneously, blinding and deafening all of them. Galea grunted, then fell, alicorn guttering like a candle.

Everypony else was far too busy to help. Rose wobbled drunkenly toward the captain and extended her good wing. The older mare’s eyes opened and she shook her head as if to clear it, then climbed back to her feet. The glow steadied and brightened again, though not as intensely as before. The pelting dropped in volume, if only a little.

Stars were visible through what clear panes remained on one side of the cockpit. The shaking had not decreased, but it had changed with the ship’s orientation, now broadside on to the monolith of cloud. They still climbed with the winds, the air noticeably thinner and colder, drafts howling through gunports and gaps, curtains long since ripped away. Electrocution, anoxia, hypothermia, simple trauma—they were spoiled for choice.

The lights went out. Something exploded, almost as loud as the thunder of the stroke that nearly blew them out of the sky. A rending noise followed, and with it a sudden yawing back toward the cloud. Galea reached an arm past the engineers to slam one of the throttles to zero, then another. The uneven drone of the engines dropped. She waved both arms in the same direction; the pilots didn’t need the silent order to throw all their weight into yanking their heading away again.

By degrees they crabbed around the lethal obstacle, still gaining altitude. A shuddering that began with the blast became heavier and faster until, with another screech of tearing metal, it ceased, leaving a worrying list in its wake. For a few blessed minutes there was relative peace and quiet. Then they crossed the boundary and began to plummet.


Dawn found the battered ship limping on half power amidst a dense snowfall, hardly distinguishable from the milky opacity of the cratered cockpit glass. The partially stripped gondola provided little shelter from the cold and slipstream. An engine car was completely gone, taking a broad ribbon of fabric skin with it. The inner cells, yet another experimental innovation, were intact but had lost significant amounts of gas. A waist gun and its pivot had torn away. One of the crew, and several supply containers, had vanished; none could say when or how. Only Galea’s protective shield, the spell symbolized by the crested helmet on her bony haunch, had prevented the whole ship going down in flames, lit like a match by lightning. The exhausted captain had turned the watch over to Fancy Pants and Fleur after a brief conference.

“What was that?” A frazzled Fleur had been aghast. “I don’t think I’ve seen a storm that large before.”

Galea shrugged wearily. “Up here in the north, the weather service is stretched pretty thin at the best of times—which these aren’t. I’m guessing they haven’t been able t’ do much since this whole thing started. That means a whole lot of weather’s built up without anything being done t’ control it.”

“Can we reach our destination?” Fancy Pants asked, concerned.

“As far out as we are now,” Galea pointed out, “there isn’t much else t’ do but press on.”

Arrival

View Online

It was the arctic wall, Equestria’s northern frontier, a natural border stretching across most of the continent’s breadth. The Crystal Mountains marched in stark majesty, blue and gray and white, around the tiny silvery mote that labored eastward up a long narrow pass. Below ran a single railroad track, visible only where snowdrifts had blown away. To starboard reared the western extents of the southernmost range; to port stood the overlapping eastern end of the next rampart. High above a white sun shone in a hard cloudless sky. Somewhere ahead lay the destination of both the rail line and the airship following it.

“I’ve never been so c-c-cold in my life,” stuttered Sunset. She peered out and down from the warped and twisted waist position missing its gun, keeping a sharp watch, for Comet no longer soared high above the ground.

As the valley rose, the temperature fell, and the abused vessel was in decline figuratively and literally. She floated low enough a sufficiently tall tree—more likely a telegraph pole—or similar obstruction could pose a mortal danger. A heavy enough gust funneled down the V-shaped trough might toss her in any direction, including downward or toward one of the cliffsides. Even if the crew wanted to, and would survive the intense high-altitude chill, the ship no longer could climb enough to clear the surrounding peaks and ridges.

“It’s not so much how cold it is right now,” Cook got out through chattering teeth as he kept a weather eye aft. “It’s that we’ve been cold for . . . how long?” The pair of them, bundled from nose to tail, shivered in the slipstream as they stood on the buckled and torn deck. The trusses and cladding providing partial shelter had gone with the gun, leaving the small platform fully exposed to the elements. The coarse grid of a cargo net was strung across the opening and ropes tied their safety harnesses to exposed stanchions, but those jury-rigged measures did nothing to fend off the freezing wind.

“Don’t care,” Sunset returned. The fiery young mare had worked hard to regain the good graces of the surviving crew, volunteering for the worst duties, performing them precisely and without complaint; even now her outburst focused on the world outside rather than the post she stood. After all, she’d observed as philosophically as she could to Cook and Rose, it wasn’t like she hadn’t performed a penance before.

“Well,” Cook observed, failing to achieve a chipper, bracing tone, “we’re supposed to get there today, so we only have to put up with it a few more hours.”

Sunset vented a morose grunt, barely audible over the dull roar of the gasoline engines still running. One was missing; its mate on the envelope’s other side was shut down for symmetry of thrust. At half power, the ship seemed to crawl, wobbling as breezes and eddies it normally resisted played with the huge sail area of the envelope. Otherwise the world seemed utterly silent aside from the whistle of air across every surface it encountered.

“Huh,” she added after a few moments. “I see a building down there, but it doesn’t look like anypony’s home.” After another pause she went on uncertainly, “I don’t think it’s a guardpost, but there’s a cannon. Looks kinda strange. And it’s pointed up.”

“Let me see.” Cook turned around carefully and looked over her shoulder toward the log cabin standing not far from the right-of-way. In front of it there did seem to be a sizable mortar on a fixed mounting, squat barrel aimed at the sky. “Oh, I know what that is. It’s a—” His eyes grew comically large. He had time for a single curse before the gun’s purpose became abundantly clear.


The storm that nearly downed their airship had been only one among many, dumping rain, snow, and ice across the north. The snowpack that in part gave the Crystals their name, already generous, had built up considerably. Unobstructed summer sunlight had followed, warming and softening the frozen layers. Crews who normally monitored and dealt with that build-up, sending up weather ponies or lofting explosive charges with their mortars to bring it down while it was still small, had evacuated in the face of uncertainty and chaos. The overburden thus was left to accumulate until it reached the breaking point.

Early signs of an avalanche can be hard to notice, seemingly slow and quiet. It’s only as the sliding snow and ice accelerate and plumes kick up that the danger becomes obvious, but by then it’s too late. The wave front generally reaches speeds much faster than most skiers can outrun and often is far wider than quick-thinking skiers can evade. Even flyers—and flying machines—could be caught by snow and rocks, falling or flung, and clouds of displaced air and powder.

The envelope bore the brunt of it. Suddenly the whole ship vibrated and visibility whited out; the gondola rocked and bounced. Somewhere, over the rumble of the fall, a brief scream faded. Sunset and Cook lost their footing. Cook fell heavily to the deck. Sunset spun outward, striking the netting low and hard enough to pull several of the hurriedly placed staples completely out of the structures to which they’d been attached. Her safety line tautened, arresting her tumble, then gravity promptly took over. She fell right past the edge of the remaining platform to swing in open air.

It took Sunset a few seconds to recover enough breath to shriek and thrash all four limbs. Her alicorn lit instinctively, but only a very few unicorns were able to lift themselves, and Sunset was not among them. It took Cook a few seconds more to regain his feet and yell back, “Hang on!” His levitation aura enveloped her. With a groan of effort he pulled, but his was not the mightiest of magic. “Need some help here!” he called.

Fancy Pants and Fleur appeared after a minute that lasted an eternity and with Cook’s assistance managed to raise the younger unicorn enough to pull her back by the harness. She lay on the deck and hyperventilated amidst the commotion as the pair vanished into the gondola again to deal with whatever other emergencies awaited. When she stood again on shaky legs, she said, “What do we do now?”

Cook, who’d peered inward, replied, “I think it’s over. The best thing to do is keep watch again. We’re still moving, after all.”


“You two all right?” Galea stood in the gangway to the gun position.

“Yeah, we’re fine,” Sunset assured her. “What happened? Uh, Ma’am.”

The captain sighed. “Avalanche, but you knew that much. We were low and slow enough t’ catch some of it. Didn’t do a lot o’ damage, but it shook everything and everypony up, and we lost another. Blamed fool wasn’t wearing his harness—said it was too much bother, apparently—and he was hanging out over the rail, trying t’ get a look at something. The body’s under too many tons of snow and rocks about now.” The edge in her voice was subtle, but it wasn’t difficult for the other pair to realize how hard she took the losses under her command.

“It’s not your fault, Captain,” Sunset told her in a consoling tone.

The older unicorn stared at her. “Haven’t you learned anything, Missy? Everything that happens is the commanding officer’s fault, or at least her responsibility.” Abruptly she turned and left.

Sunset looked at Cook. “I’m not doing very well, am I?”

Cook sighed. “This is all new to you—well, and me too. It’s hard to get things right without any practice first. At least I’ve got my diplomatic training to fall back on.” After a meditative pause he went on, “Adventure is someone else having a bad time somewhere far away. It’s fun to listen to the stories, but usually it isn’t nearly as much fun to live through them. I’ll bet Ms. Brass would have a few things to say about that too.”

“You know,” Sunset said absently as she turned back to resume her watch, “I used to be desperate for adventure. I was so tempted to leave CHS and come back so I could find it. Now I’m wondering what I was thinking.”


When the eagerly awaited oasis of green warmth drew into sight, there was a general cheer. Only Galea didn’t share it, focused as she was on actually reaching the broad round valley nestled in the midst of rock and snow. Before long a platoon of cavalry approached cautiously to challenge the unfamiliar visitor; most of the guardsponies took station above the envelope, leaving only a sergeant in easy view.

To her megaphone-amplified query Fancy Pants replied in like fashion from the nearer waist position. “Experimental airship Comet out of Vanhoover. We wish to enter and land. We have news.”

It took several minutes, by relay, to propitiate the understandably edgy lieutenant enough to grant permission to cross the border, but eventually he fired a quick sequence of flares and via the sergeant assured Fancy Pants the way was clear. In return the older stallion offered profuse thanks, though he stayed where he was as the engines spooled up for the short final leg. With the cockpit nearly blind thanks to the damaged glazing, the doubled look-outs had become indispensible for guiding the ship’s movements.

At last the weary vessel drifted slowly down to the single mast, erected less than a year ago off the cobbled road running out to the train station. A growing—and rather scintillant—crowd watched at a respectful distance. The crystal ponies, for whom a millennium had passed in an eyeblink, still had not become entirely accustomed to the wonders of the new industrial age and took every opportunity to gawk at the technological marvels that came their way.

The cavalry unit was joined by a platoon of infantry who took on the role of ground crew. A lack of experience made the whole affair rather more exciting than anypony really preferred, and more than a few sighs of relief greeted the clamor of the ship’s bell announcing “done with engines”. A moment later the mechanical rumble died away, leaving the airscrews to wind down lazily, and the onlookers raised another, louder hurrah.

A hurried colloquy placed Fancy Pants in charge of the anchor watch. The pilot and engineer also selected radiated disappointment, but Galea assured them, “We’ll switch off as soon as we can, lads, never you fear.”

The rest of the crew, including Sunset, Cook, and Rose, queued up in the after gangway, waiting with barely restrained impatience as the captain edged past them to let down the ramp from the tail gun position. One by one they hopped from the ramp to the field, there to exhibit a variety of reactions to being on solid ground for the first time since setting out from Vanhoover. The unicorn colt unabashedly rolled on the grass, limbs waving in the air. The others were more restrained but no less fervent.

The pegasus lieutenant without a hint of crystal in his golden hide trotted up. “Who’s in charge, may I ask?”

Galea, of course, turned and nodded. “Dame Galea, Order of the Golden Sun. I’m the skipper of that bucket o’ bolts.”

The reply seemed to take him aback, but he rallied after a beat. “Lieutenant Flash Sentry. Will you need lodgings in town?”

Fleur stepped forward. “Captain, I can see to the crew’s needs. I believe you and our . . . guests should proceed to the palace without delay.”

A faint frown of concern clouded the young officer’s face. “The palace?”

“Yes indeed, Lieutenant.” Fleur drew herself up, the picture of elegant manners. “Where better to impart the important news we bring with us?”


A little more browbeating was required before the lieutenant acquiesced and led the quartet along the road into town—not that much guidance was needed, between the lack of other highways and the towering beacon of the palace.

“It’s . . . showy,” Rose muttered to Sunset and Cook. “What is it about tower houses as palaces here?”

Having no good answer, the other two shrugged. Galea shot her a quelling look but remained silent as well. If the lieutenant heard, he gave no sign.

After a few more steps Cook spoke up. “Lieutenant. Can you tell us what arrangements are in place during Her Serene Highness’s absence?”

“No Sir.” The words were entirely emotionless and the blue-maned head didn’t turn. “It’s not my place to comment on such matters.”

Cook let out a breath and nodded. Sidelong he murmured, “I’m not surprised, but it was worth a try.”

The rest of the journey passed in silence. The town’s streets bustled reassuringly, though an air of disquiet lurked just below the surface. Isolated as the pocket principality was, its inhabitants had to realize something was terribly wrong, even if they didn’t know exactly what. Still, passersby were cordial, nodding to or greeting the newcomers with at least a pretense of cheer.

When the small party arrived under the architectural oddity at the center of the valley, Rose paused with a sharp intake of breath. “What in—?”

“Ah.” Cook sounded amused. “That, Ms. Brass, is the Crystal Heart. It is the proximate reason the principality can exist. Beautiful, isn’t it?”

“I guess.” The larger pegasus plainly didn’t share in the amusement. “This place . . .” She shook her head and trailed off, leaving the thought unfinished. Instead she glanced around uneasily at the other ponies passing through, treating the paved plaza under the royal residence, and surrounding a strategic asset, as if it were just another crossroad.

“It’s the largest known enchanted artifact in the modern world,” Sunset added with a tinge of academic pride. “And one of the most powerful.” She rattled on like a tourguide until they reached the grand double-leaf doors in one of the tower’s four legs, then faltered and fell silent as the paired door guards in ceremonial armor braced; the senior of them challenged the party in formal phrases.

Their guide halted and responded, “Visitors to the palace, Sergeant. They claim to bring news.”

The remainder of the challenge and response went quickly, and the unicorn sergeant opened the doors. Led by Lieutenant Sentry, the five of them filed into the cool dimness of the palace, and the leaves closed with a rush of displaced air and a quietly massive thump.

Respite

View Online

The chamber was, of course, palatial—if rather cold-seeming with its shiny-polished floor, ceiling, and walls interrupted only by tall peaked windows and tall peaked doorway. On a crimson rug at the room’s center stood a sizable round table of dark wood, simple and oddly modernist in its double-tiered design. The lieutenant ushered them in and said firmly, “Wait here, please,” then departed and closed the double doors behind him.

Cook glanced sidelong at the tall leaves and opened his mouth. Sunset cut him off. “Don’t even start.” Both of the other mares gave her surprised looks; Cook’s manner was overtly ironic, but he held his tongue.

“Yes, he’s that Flash Sentry—or, well, his counterpart.” Sunset’s tone was tart. “What am I supposed to say, Cook? ‘Hi. You don’t know me, but you’re my ex-coltfriend, except he isn’t really you, he’s just like you, only in another dimension.’ I kinda went through that already with Sci-Twi. This is even more weird and creepy and I’m not supposed to talk about it, right? Aren’t you the one who’s always gassing on about ‘need to know’?”

“Fair enough,” Cook half-apologized with a shrug, though he didn’t seem abashed by Sunset’s aggrieved rant. Rose rolled her eye. Galea wore the blank look of an officer who knows she’s hearing things beyond her pay grade. Instead of pursuing his teasing, Cook asked curiously, “Have you met before, then?”

“Yeah.” Sunset accepted the partial deflection with ill grace. “I ran into him in Canterlot—he was part of the escort for Celestia, Luna, Twi, and me, when we went to the library during that whole thing with the Memory Stone. But he’s been up here before too, from what Twi’s mentioned in the journal, so I guess he gets shuffled around a lot.”

“Royal Guard uniform, not EUPG,” Galea put in. “I’d say he’s on the fast track as a promising young officer. Prob’ly was transferred here to give him more seasoning with different assignments, like heading up a platoon.”

It was Sunset’s turn to shrug. “Uh, okay. Good for him, I guess.” She eyed Cook again. “Hush, you.”

Cook’s brows went up. “I didn’t say anything,” he protested virtuously.

“No, but you were thinking it really loudly. I don’t need my pendant to figure that out,” she replied, trying to maintain her severe expression. A moment later the doors reopened, and the moment of levity passed.


As befitted the crystal realm’s small size, its regency council was not overlarge, able to sit around half the broad low table’s circumference. All but two of its members glittered with distinctive, if illusory, faceting that shifted with their movements; the pair of unicorns who did not made up for it with their splendid garments.

His Highness Prince Consort Shining Armor, in the immaculate scarlet dress tunic of a major general, sat stone-faced, military discipline warring with grief and rage. His Excellency Court Wizard and Royal Crystaller Sunburst, in fine robes of office likely maintained by palace staff rather than his own absent-minded self, made no effort to hide his horror and fear for the court and populace he served. The ministers seated with them ran the gamut from grim to verging on panic, though at least their shock had held their tongues.

The quartet facing them from the table’s far side stood mum in the moments after finishing what, through sheer training and habit, the diplomat and pair of officers had turned into a briefing. Sunset hung back a little, once again a bit out of place in such a formalized and rarefied environment, biting her lip and darting glances around the small crowd.

“Are there any questions?” Cook asked quietly.

The babel that broke out in response was cut short in seconds by a parade-ground shout of “Silence!” and the thump of a hoof on the tabletop. Shining Armor glared impartially around the table. “We don’t have time for that. Rules of order.” His voice was crisp, exhibiting little of his usual laid-back demeanor. Sunburst blinked and adjusted his steel-rimmed eyeglasses, but nodded quickly, endorsing the imposition of parliamentary procedure on the gathering.

Shining Armor chaired with stiff precision. If many of the questions thrown across the table were inane or even a little hysterical, causing his lips to thin with impatience, others were focused and to the point. Cook’s courteous calm dealt with them all, answering or directing them to one of his companions as needed. Galea and Rose bore much of the brunt, but even Sunset came in for her share of the spotlight, to her discomfort.

When at last the council ran down to uneasy mutters, the prince consort drew in a breath. “Okay. We’ll have to talk this over. Thanks, all of you.” As the visitors drew themselves up, he added, “Just one more thing before you go. Colonel Dame Galea, Captain Brass, on my authority, both of you are recalled to service and attached to my staff.”

Galea blew out a breath, almost a snort, but the much younger general seemed to take no offense at the highly informal acknowledgement from the crusty old veteran. Rose, by contrast, gaped for a moment, then responded, “Sir, I—I’m not under your authority.”

“Sure you are.” Shining Armor’s normally sunny smile was sardonic. “You were from the minute you took command of that infantry company. Or does that only work one way?”

A parade of expressions crossed Rose’s scarred face before she settled on doubtful. She turned to Cook. “He . . . can’t do that, can he?”

Cook’s brow quirked with unwonted consternation. “Normally, no, not without consulting with your nominal chain of command—but like he said, when you took over the company, you established a precedent. This is a friendly power, even if not a full ally, and there’s a long tradition of attaching foreign observers to general staffs. Besides, there’s no way in the current emergency to do any consulting. It’s what we diplomats like to call ‘a gray area’.”

“But—” Rose looked back and forth between the two stallions, then sagged slightly before bracing for the general. “Yes Sir.”


The seneschal, a quietly efficient middle-aged crystal pony who’d begun service during Princess Amore’s reign, accommodated all four with little fuss. Galea and Rose were assigned officers’ quarters adjacent to the palace detachment’s barracks. Cook, as a chargé d’affaires accredited to the crown, merited a formal suite—a pair of bedchambers on opposite sides of a small parlor, neatly sidestepping Sunset’s ambiguous status by making her a guest of Cook’s.

A new routine quickly established itself. Despite what had to be an agonizing uncertainty over the fates of his wife, sister, and beloved adoptive aunts by marriage, Shining Armor did his best to focus on his responsibilities as the head of the regency council, senior military officer, father, and host. In turn, the council and his newest visitors offered what support they could.

Galea split her time between staff duties and, with the general’s blessing, overseeing jury-rigged repairs of Comet. To her own surprise, Rose found her social-worker expertise in greater demand than her officer skills, counseling bewildered or grieving guardsponies—not excepting His Highness—while keeping the discussions private and inside the bounds of military propriety. Within the limits imposed by diplomatic constraints, Cook advised anypony who asked, and struck up a firm friendship with Sunburst. Sunset, however, had no official role to fill. Rather than spend her time stewing or fretting, and at the strong urging of pretty much every adult around her, she explored as the whim took her, both the palace itself and the city-state surrounding it.

Her Highness Princess Flurry Heart, just entering her “terrible twos”, was like any toddler a delight and a terror. Though a bit cranky over her mother’s continued absence, she otherwise remained blissfully unaware of the shadows over her world, and seemed fascinated by Sunset’s fiery colors and magical prowess. Her own fits of precocious power had begun to settle, much to the relief of the nursery staff—and the maintenance ponies who hadn’t been able to keep up completely with the wear and tear. Initially uneasy, Sunset nevertheless found herself charmed and ended up promising the filly, and the filly’s father, she would visit daily.

The townsponies maintained their polite hospitality, though after the proclamation summarizing the news, and the rumors from Comet’s crew, there was a brittle edge to their mood. Not infrequently Sunset found herself accosted by curious or worried ponies and questioned—as if she could provide more details than they already had. She answered as patiently as she could, though her temper occasionally made her responses a bit curt. Apologies, sometimes mutual, often followed.

Still, it was only a few days before Sunset more or less wore out the valley’s novelty. Casting about for further diversion, and the suggestions of several mildly exasperated ponies, brought her early one morning to the edge of the verdant circle and a sizable shingle-clad building, obviously constructed since the valley had returned to the present world. The backwood architecture and simple monument sign by the walkway weren’t the artificially quaint things her eye had become accustomed to on the other side of the portal; here they were the genuine article, what those faux-rustic artifacts sought to evoke.

The Arctic Patrol, she’d been told, acted as a sort of frontier constabulary, solving problems, keeping the peace, and upholding the law among the outlying homesteads up in the snowy foothills. Like many such organizations on either side of the portal, it was small and relatively informal, but took its job seriously. She looked up to the farmer’s porch fronting the headquarters and saw a young unicorn mare, mint green with puffy blue-white mane and decidedly not a crystal pony, waiting with a welcoming smile.

“Ms. Shimmer?” The tone was brisk but friendly. “I’m Constable Glitter Drops. We got the telegram from the palace saying you were interested in walking a circuit, so you’ll be accompanying me on my rounds today.”

Sunset’s brow furrowed thoughtfully. “Have we met? I get the feeling I’ve seen you before, Ma’am.”

The constable laughed. “I’m too young to be ‘Ma’am’. Just call me Glitter.” She sobered and cocked her head. “Now that you mention it, you seem familiar too. I know I’ve seen those colors and that mane style before. Can I see your mark?” When Sunset obliged, turning to show the red-and-yellow sun on her haunch, Glitter Drops brightened. “Oh yeah! You went to the School for Gifted Unicorns, didn’t you? I think you started a year or so before Spring Rain and I . . . left.” Suddenly her mood, and her gaze, fell.

“You dropped out too, huh?” Sunset’s voice was quiet and sympathetic.

That brought the other’s head up again, eyes wide. “You too? Gosh. It’s a pretty tough place, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, but—” Sunset bit her lip. “Yeah. Come to think of it, I know of a lot of unicorns who, uh, didn’t graduate. You, me, your friend Spring Rain, Trixie Lulamoon—”

“Powder-blue coat, silver-white mane, always bragging?” Laughter lurked in Glitter’s tone this time.

“Yeah, that’s the one. I . . . sorta know her a little.” What Sunset didn’t add was she knew the illusionist’s human counterpart rather better, her acquaintance with the mare being mostly through Princess Twi’s journal and acerbic anecdotes related during Starlight Glimmer’s impromptu “vacation” with the Rainbooms after the affair with the enchanted mirror.

“And Sunburst—sorry, His Excellency Sunburst—if the rumors are right.” Glitter Drops paused as if struck by an epiphany. “Maybe he ended up here for the same reason I did.”

“You wanted to find someplace to make a new start, didn’t you?” Sunset’s smile was crooked.

“Pretty much.” Now the slightly older unicorn’s gaze was more pointed. “Sounds like you did the same thing. Where’d you go?”

“I, uh—” Sunset waved a hoof vaguely. “—can’t really talk about it.”

“Oh.” The constable eyed her askance, but after a moment shrugged and dropped it. “Well, we’re burning daylight, and I need to be on the road, so let’s go.”


Most of the house calls proved to be more about checking on the inhabitants of the isolated dwellings than solving puzzles or problems. By temperament the settlers tended to prefer being left alone while scratching modest livings from forest, furs, forage, or even fish. Only their equally modest expectations of life and the minimal cost of rural living gave them any semblance of prosperity, but they had their dignity and a strong sense of hospitality, as do many who live in harsh climes.

Glitter Drops proved a deftly amiable sort, able to draw out even the prickliest hermit. After the first two or three stops, Sunset simply kept her mouth shut and watched, marveling at the other unicorn’s ease with the sometimes fractious personalities. Ruefully she recognized this was how she might have turned out had she not been taken in by the Rainbooms, except bitter and spiteful rather than proud and independent—though with some of the ponies they visited it was hard to tell the difference.

“You’ve been awfully quiet,” the constable observed as they picked their way roughly eastward along a slightly muddy foot trail. Afternoon sunlight glared from snowdrifts and bare rock faces around them, and the day was merely cold, not bone-chilling.

Sunset thought a moment before replying slowly. “The ponies we’ve been seeing . . . they don’t seem to warm up to strangers right away, and I’m not the most, um, easygoing pony myself. I thought it was better to keep my mouth shut and let you deal with them. They know you. They don’t know me. I didn’t want to put my foot in it by saying something they wouldn’t like and making things harder for you.”

The other pony’s brows and ears went up. “That’s mighty thoughtful of you. I think some of them might surprise you, but I don’t blame you for not wanting to find out the hard way.”

The younger mare ducked her head. “Thanks. Um, how many more stops do we have today?”

When no immediate answer was forthcoming, she glanced over at Glitter Drops. The patroller was squinting into the distance. “Huh. We don’t get many airships up here.”

Sunset’s eyes widened and her head whipped around. There, far ahead of them, a small silhouette stood out against the lambent blue sky. She hissed one of Rose’s more sulphurous curses and added with rough haste, “We need to tell the palace about this. Right away.”

Leap

View Online

“Cook, this is crazy!” Sunset kept her voice down, something of a challenge while she, the stallion next to her, and the procession they were following cantered along the highway from the palace. Fortunately, the buzz of the growing crowds prevented it from reaching any other ears.

“Yes.” The sober brevity of Cook’s acknowledgement, so unlike his normal voluble irreverence, drew a sidelong look from her. His gaze was fixed on the distance ahead, but somehow she suspected he wasn’t seeing the bedraggled airship toward which they beelined.

She and Glitter Drops had been panting heavily by the time they clattered into the telegraph station of the patrol headquarters. Sunset had left even before the telegrapher finished pounding out the urgent warning, bursting from the front door and galloping straight for the palace glittering like a needle at the valley’s center. She arrived, breathless and sore, to find the whole tower in an uproar. Shining Armor was all but shouting commands even as the rest of the council issued their own orders to staff and messengers. Cook, Rose, and Galea stood by, eyes of relative calm in the storm, and when she asked them between heaving gulps of air what was going on, the plan they described—particularly her assumed part in it—brought her to a shocked halt.

That they trusted her with such a vital role was flattering; that they didn’t bother to ask first was more than a little disconcerting. After a moment, though, she realized they didn’t have a lot of choice, and neither did she. The enemy airship already was visible from the sprawling town surrounding the palace tower, and the crystal ponies were edging toward panic. There was no time to spare for anything but proceeding with the wild brainstorm that, she strongly suspected, originated with Cook himself.


The suspicion was entirely correct. Only Cook’s intensive training kept the young diplomat from trembling like a leaf. Even if he—and the two companions he’d drafted into his plan without a second thought—survived the day, even if he succeeded in his desperate on-the-fly inspiration, he might end up unceremoniously fired after an excruciatingly long and painful official hearing, punted from the Foreign Service for violating all manner of solemn diplomatic protocols. But he simply could not stand by and allow a friendly nation, especially one about which he genuinely cared, to suffer a devastating battle when he believed he stood a chance of preventing it.

His mind ran back over the events that had such a galvanizing effect. A flurry of telegraph test messages from stations scattered across Equestria suddenly arriving in quick succession, capped off with the brief but clear airship-sighting report from the Arctic Patrol that started the stopwatch leading up to the current moment. A series of hurried surmises, some sparked by comments among the nervous council hastily summoned to conclave. Breaking in quite undiplomatically and, as needed, talking over ministers ruthlessly as he presented directly to the prince consort and general. In turn, that worthy’s mouth had firmed and he’d endorsed the scheme, insane as it was, having and hearing nothing better.

Now the general, along with a blowing and puffing Galea, led the cavalcade toward Comet, escorted by a flying wedge of guardsponies.


Fancy Pants and Fleur Dis Lee already were aboard, frantically levitating everything in reach to ready the little airship for flight. The same infantry platoon milled around, more than a skilled ground crew would, but at least they had the fresh memory of having dealt with the duty once already. The cavalry troop to which Lieutenant Sentry was assigned stood by, shifting uneasily as they waited in ranks. At his captain’s order, the lieutenant himself came forward, consulted briefly with the general, then shook his head and returned to his superior, apparently conveying orders that satisfied neither of them.

The five unicorns—including an unhappy but determined Sunburst—and one pegasus boarded quickly, booted or shod hooves thundering on the ramp and deck. Scarcely had Galea lifted the ramp before the pair already in the cockpit spooled up the engines and the infantry platoon started the launch routine. The interceptor rose to the occasion, literally and figuratively, straining her limited repairs still uncompleted. No cheers greeted her departure as they had her arrival.

Everypony aboard was silent. The ambient noise would have dampened conversation in any case, but none of the small herd felt inclined to idle chatter. Even Galea’s infrequent clipped instructions or commands were limited to the fewest words possible. The airship climbed as quickly as she could manage, already aimed like an arrow toward the larger warship approaching at a respectable cruise. Finally, as the keel-like gondola roughly matched the altitude of the other’s boat-hull, Galea stepped back and called out, “First mark!”

Instantly Fancy and Fleur moved forward to take over the controls again. Galea and Shining Armor, side by side, closed their eyes and lit their alicorns. Purple, then blue, glow became visible through the cockpit glazing, half the panes still starred and cratered, as first the general’s and then the colonel’s spells took form. Sunset, Cook, Rose, and Sunburst watched for a moment, then turned and filed out.

The four of them headed aft to the plaza. Sunburst turned around to face forward, but remained in the middle of the open space as the remaining three sidled out onto the half-ruined waist gun position. Rose faced aft, but didn’t open her wings. Just inboard of her stood Sunset and Cook, both of the latter facing forward. Then they all waited.

The minutes stretched as the other master attempted several evasions, radical course changes that surely tested the limits of the larger, less sophisticated envelope and dangling gondola. Even in her damaged condition Comet matched every one with a touch of her customary grace. Finally the two ships steadied down on exact reciprocals offset to the side only a little, not quite a collision course; the other ship’s master must have decided to accept action. Confirmation came when the enemy’s bow chasers flashed and boomed. Closer by, loud thuds and rattles followed, but no other apparent consequences. Sunburst, looking toward the still-open cockpit, winced.

The small muzzle-loaders, slow to service, fired only twice more with similar results before the two ships were nearly abeam. “Second mark!” Sunburst abruptly echoed, relaying the order. The purple and blue auras blinked out. A wide-eyed Rose took a deep breath; her powerful legs heaved her over the side into free air and her wings snapped out. Cook stood dead still, legs a little spread. Sunset squeezed her eyes shut, and in an instant her alicorn went from quiescent to blinding. With a flash and a bang of displaced air, the pair of unicorns vanished. Before the enemy’s broadside gunners could react, purple and blue sprang back into being between the two ships passing almost close enough to touch.

Rose fell for a heart-stopping second before her unpracticed wings and magic caught and she began flapping mightily. She climbed and banked, looping up and over toward the enemy topdeck. Any moment she expected to be blown from the sky by a shell or even a musket shot, but there seemed to be some command confusion, for which she was heartily thankful. Another flash and bang caught her attention, and she pulled a momentary mirthless smile. Time to see if this really would work.

Sunset and Cook reappeared a hoof-width or two over the wooden gondola’s forecastle deck, just within the angle at the bow. Retaining their initial momentum, they hurtled aft, falling deckward as they did. When their hooves, swaddled in sturdy boots, thudded onto the planks, they grunted and nearly fell, but the boots and their legs took the impact. They continued to skid, bootsoles on the decking scrubbing off speed, until their parka-cushioned chests thumped painfully against the railing at the fo’c’sle’s aft edge, bringing them to a halt. Immediately Cook’s alicorn lit, pulling a megaphone from a hook on the belt around his middle. Sunset stepped back from the rail and turned her head for a look around, her own alicorn glowing with promise.

The big pegasus made a separate entrance, swooping between the envelope and gondola above the pair of unicorns. One forehoof brandished what to the enemy crew would appear a brutally utilitarian-looking block of blued steel, slim and squared off, perched on the furniture that fitted it to her pastern; with an ominous mechanical racheting noise her other forehoof worked the slide, bringing the small firearm into battery. She swung the transformed but still deadly-looking pistol in an isosceles stance toward the chase gunners standing at the bow rails.

“Down to the main deck—now. Move.” Rose’s matter-of-fact tone and the scarred face from which it issued were more menacing than any scream. After a moment’s hesitation the hulking figures obeyed, their backs to the rails as they sidestepped to the ladderways at the outer rim of the fo’c’sle, port and starboard, then descended to join their crewmates looking up from the main deck.

“I am here to call for your surrender,” Cook blared through the simple but effective cone. “I require the ship’s captain to step forward and offer it.” As he spoke Rose lit on the deck beside him, on the other side from Sunset, and the two mares faced out, dividing the gondola’s expanse into areas of responsibility, watching the visible crew and hatchways.


Cook ignored his bodyguards, trusting them to do their job. His world narrowed to the deck, the scattered crew members on it, and the task he had assumed. Rose’s voice and the roar of wind was distant, joined in his ears by the beat of his blood and the breath in his lungs.

“Who is so arrogant?” The voice was creaky but did not lack for volume. Beyond the main deck, at the matching rail of the aftcastle, a wizened figure leaned on a staff. The oldster appeared for all the world as if one of the gigantic long-armed figures had shriveled in the sun, like a fallen fruit left too long on the ground. The yellowed ruffs of fur around throat and tail bore blue edging, though it was difficult to tell whether the bright color was natural or dyed. The coverall bore no armor but otherwise matched the usual dark uniform of the Storm King’s forces, though it did not flatter the aged body.

“I speak only to the captain,” Cook stated firmly, and said nothing more.

Even by the standards of the folk they faced, the new figure who stepped up beside the elder was large. Brilliant red stripes stood out against the white fur of the collar ruff, one on each side from neck toward shoulder; the same hue edged the tail ruff. Rather than a jack, the barrel chest was enclosed in a full cuirass, the Storm King’s insigne glowing in lambent blue across its face.

“Surrender now and you will be spared. Fail to do so and you, your crew, and your ship will be destroyed.” Cook’s words were hackneyed but simple and unequivocal. Clever poetic verbiage had its place, but not here and now.

The pair of figures turned their heads to each other. From their small movements it seemed plain they were conferring. When they turned back, the smaller one proclaimed with an edge of contempt, “You have not the strength.”

“There is strength enough.” Cook drew himself up. “Yonder airship carries two quick-firers. Her speed is greater. She is faster on the helm. She will dance rings around you, cross your T, rake you as many times as needful. It is what she was built to do.” That Comet was half-crippled and undercrewed he did not mention. He merely hoped they would not call the bluff. “Even should you swat her from the sky, she will have weakened you, and the cavalry and artillery who await will harry you. You threaten their home. They will not give way unless you slay every one of them, and that will be difficult at best.”

Another brief conference, and again the spokescreature turned back. “We will win through. We will lay waste to the cottages and fields. We will reduce the tower that stands so proudly.”

“And then what?” the diplomat asked. “Does your captain propose to rule over the ruins? Even if a crippled ship and the dregs of a crew were enough, the Crystal Heart would die. The valley would die. And you would die.”

A hand swept out from the staff, palm up. “We will move on. It is what we have always done. We break nations, feast on their remains, and seek new ones. There are many in the world.”

“The mountains are cold and harsh, and the northlands are vast, with few settlements,” Cook pointed out. “You may yet have a few broadsides in your magazines, but there is no food or water in your holds. You will end as a monument to hubris and folly, a scattering of fabric, timbers, and bones in the snow and ice for travelers to look upon with pity.”

That stung, he could see; knuckles stood out on the wiry fists that gripped the wooden shaft and the meatier ones that drew splinters from the rail. “Our magazines and holds are not open to your eyes. You cannot know what they contain.”

“I need not see them to know they are empty.” Cook leaned forward. “Your ship maneuvered too briskly to be laden, and even now her turn of speed is too great. Your topdeck is clear of barrels and crates. You failed to fire on us as we boarded. Your crew is uneasy, indecisive.” He paused, then added, “And I know more than that.” With that he stood straight again and waited. A long minute of relative silence held court, but finally the other creatures were driven to respond.

“And what is it you know, little pony?” The factotum’s voice attempted a haughty air, but to Cook’s practiced ear it sounded hollow.

The flush of fight-or-flight came over Cook as he laid his last metaphorical card on the table. “The Storm King is done. Killed, captured, fled, the result is the same. The telegraph is alive again with messages—not a great many, and only cautious tests, but that is clue enough. When the news arrived at Rainbow Falls far to the east, I would guess, they gave you the hardest and longest fight Equestria has offered you yet, and you were forced to break off. You flew west, draining what supplies you had left, to seek refuge here, where you hoped the news had not yet reached. Perhaps you thought to become warlords, perhaps you simply thought to gather hostages. I neither know nor care about the details. What matters now is whether you surrender and live, or fight and die. Choose now, and choose wisely.” He held his breath.

When at last the reply came, grudging though it might be, his first demand was, “Spike your guns.”

Epilogue • The student

View Online

“It sounds like it was just awful, Sunset.” A butter-yellow hand squeezed Sunset’s shoulder.

Sunset sighed as she rubbed her eyes with the heels of her palms. She still hadn’t readjusted completely to being human again, but that was passing quickly enough. “A lot of it was, Fluttershy. I’m sure I’ll have nightmares now and then for a while yet. Rose thinks I should be okay in the long run, though.”

Her closest friends, true sights for sore eyes that they were, sat with her around the pair of tables pulled together on the terra-cotta-paved back patio of Lectern’s New and Used Books under partly cloudy skies. All were affected by the long, sometimes horrifying story she just finished pouring out, subdued and solemn. Even Pinkie Pie and Rainbow Dash evinced little of their usual exuberance—Pinkie’s hair somehow looked less vivid and fluffy than usual, matching her sad expression.

“Are you sure?” Twilight Sparkle’s face was the picture of concern. “I mean, you went through at least two battles, and that second one—” Her shiver had nothing to do with the autumn season.

“Rose was, and she should know—but just to make sure, she set me up with an appointment for an evaluation at the same place where the Dazzlings are getting their therapy.” Sunset’s hands lowered to the table. “Cook told me not to worry about the cost. If nobody else does, he’ll pay for it out of pocket. I think he feels responsible, even though I was the one who called him about going.”

“Ya did fine,” Applejack assured her in a bracing tone. “Ah mean, Ah c’n understand why Rose and—uh, Colonel?—Galea were upset with ya after that airship bushwhack, but ’tain’t hard t’ see why you were so shook up and kept shootin’. From th’ sound ’f it, even Galea understood that, even if she hadda read ya the riot act over it.”

Sunset glanced down and nodded before looking up again. “That was the biggest lesson I learned, but it wasn’t the only one—and don’t get me wrong, not everything was bad. Some pretty amazing things happened too.” Her expression hardened a little. “Now I’ve got a question I’ve been waiting to ask you all since I got back. Why in Tartarus are you not in classes right now?”

This was greeted with much hemming and hawing, and much avoidance of eye contact. “Girls, da—” Sunset bit off the curse and clutched her hair. Plainly Rose had been a bad influence.

Twilight looked down at the tips of her forefingers, tapping against each other, and mumbled, “We decided to wait. For you.”

“Oh, for—I had a feeling it was something like that.” There was some heat in Sunset’s voice along with resignation. “Look, just because I was off playing hookie, that’s no reason for all of you to—”

“What’s done is done, Sunset,” Rarity pointed out primly. “And consider we were very worried about you—and Equestria. It would have been difficult to concentrate under those circumstances.” This was corroborated by general nods and noises of agreement.

Sunset shook her head. “Still, you shouldn’t have waited. All those scholarships and grants down the drain.”

“Not all of them,” Twilight protested. At Sunset’s trenchant look she conceded lamely, “Just most of them.”

After a moment Sunset flung up her hands in defeat. “Fine. All for one and one for all. But you know we’re going to have to dig up new financing all over again. I’m sure Cook will help, but it’s not going to be easy.”

Rather than answer in words, the friends nearest to her leaned over for another embrace, as if to assure themselves once more she really was there, healthy and whole. She closed her eyes as she returned it, and in a husky voice told them, “I’m back and I’m okay. We’ll figure it out and start classes as soon as we can, all right?” When the hugs broke up she straightened and cleared her throat. “Anyway, I’ll bet you have a zillion questions.”

To no one’s surprise, Rainbow Dash jumped right in, though her words were slow and disturbed. “That thing you told us Cook said, about adventure . . .”

Sunset quoted from memory, the words seared into her mind. “Puts a different spin on all those stories we read, doesn’t it?”

“Yeah.” Dash looked as if she’d swallowed something vile. “I dunno if I can read any more Daring Do books without wondering what kinda stuff isn’t in ’em.”

“I said something like that when I was talking to the princesses before I came back. Celestia told me it’s part of growing up.” Sunset couldn’t help rolling her eyes. “Just what I wanted to hear. At least she was smiling when she said it.”

“But she smiles all the time, right?” Pinkie pointed out. “Even more than Principal Celestia does! I remember you and Princess Twi talking about that.”

“A lot of the time, yeah, Pinkie.” The unicorn-girl thought a moment. “Huh.”

The tone of realization in her trailing syllable caught everyone’s attention. “Well, darling?” Rarity finally prompted. “Care to give us a little more than an uncultured grunt?”

“Hm?” Sunset blinked. “Oh. Yeah. I was just thinking. You remember when I went back to Canterlot during the Memory Stone thing?”

“How could we forget?” Rarity’s grimace mixed humor and apology. “I know I can’t, especially how I treated you so badly.”

Sunset flashed her a crooked smile of forgiveness. “I was so surprised when Princess Celestia cracked a joke. But when I think about it now—she had a sense of humor all along. It’s just that, when I was younger, a lot of it must have flown over my head; as I got older, I never saw it because I was so focused on myself and what I wanted, and I was getting madder and madder at her. And by then I guess she didn’t have a lot of reason to joke around.”

“Reckon she’s right, then.” AJ put an elbow over the back of her chair and tipped up her hat with the other hand. “The growin’ up part, Ah mean. Yer seein’ things now ya ain’t noticed b’fore.” She looked around. “Anyone else?”

Rarity leaned forward. “Sunset, darling, I particularly remember your description of Cook’s reaction when Dame Galea introduced herself. It piqued my interest in itself, and it seemed an oddly specific, yet trivial, thing for you to mention.”

And you’re fascinated by anything connected with social rank,” Sunset observed shrewdly. Her grin was a bit wicked, more like her old self, which made everyone else smile with a touch of relief.

“True,” Rarity admitted with an abashed shrug.

“Uh, let’s see.” The gears in Sunset’s head turned as she considered her explanation. “Equestria’s got a bunch of chivalric orders—you know, organizations of knights. They’re a lot more formal and organized now than they used to be in the old days, of course, and each of ’em has different rules and traditions: who can be a member and why, who’s allowed to dub in—ah, induct—a new member, ranks, and so on.”

She looked around and got nods to show her audience was following along. “Okay, so the rules for the Order of the Golden Sun are pretty simple. It’s Princess Celestia’s personal order. She’s the only pony who can dub in new members. She doesn’t have to explain the reasons for adding somepony, though she usually does. There’s no limit on the number of members, but as far as I know it’s never very big. It’s one of the ways Celestia can reward a pony for doing something special.”

To the widened eyes of her friends she added, “Yeah, now you know why Cook was so impressed. Anyway, since Princess Luna came back, she’s started something similar, the Order of the Silver Moon, and I wouldn’t be surprised if someday Princess Twi creates her own, the Order of the Dawn or something like that.”

“Wait wait wait,” Dash broke in. “Aren’t you gonna tell us what Galea did to get in?”

“She wouldn’t say. She only mentioned it in the first place ’cause the rules say it has to be part of a formal introduction.” Sunset shrugged as if to leave it at that, but when Dash shook a mock-threatening fist at her, she held up both hands and grinned. “Okay, okay. I asked Celestia about it. Turns out Galea was in command of a Guard airship that got hit by a supply airship during practice. Both of them crashed, but she was able to save a lot of her crew by casting her protective spell around part of the gondola, even though she was hurt pretty badly in the collision. She got hurt worse when the spell collapsed hitting the ground—y’know, magical feedback—but it cushioned the impact for everypony else. She had to retire after that, kind of like Rose did, but the Guard gave her a promotion and Celestia knighted her.” Over the low whistles and mutters from the others, she continued, “So who’s next?”

Just then a buzz and glow emanated from the messenger bag sitting before her. She stared at it briefly before scrambling to pull a leather-bound journal out of it. She flipped through the book quickly and, upon reaching the correct page, her eyes flicked left and right, following the fountain-pen writing still tracing out in purple light. When it finished, she sat there with a stunned expression.

Even Fluttershy joined in the general clamor of anxious queries. Sunset looked up and her mouth flapped for a moment before she was able to answer, “Says here Cook figured out why you girls hadn’t started classes and told the princesses, the rat. ‘In gratitude for service past, present, and future, keeping the peace and upholding the good in two worlds, the crown is pleased to—’” She put the book down and finished in a faint voice, “Celestia is sponsoring full-ride scholarships. For all seven of us.”

Epilogue • The ambassador

View Online

“Hey, Twilight?” Starlight Glimmer’s expression—and voice—were ambivalent as she spoke over the muffled sawing, hammering, hollering, spell-chimes, and general mayhem emanating from somewhere outside the crystalline tower. “Mister Cook’s here.”

“Cook!” Her Highness Princess Twilight Sparkle blinked as she looked up from the writing table in her endearingly cluttered study. “Now? But—uh, please have him come in, Starlight.”

Starlight sidled over and gestured in token civility toward the doorway. As the other unicorn stepped past her, she faded back into the corridor and disappeared with indecent haste.

Cook rolled his eyes as he entered the cozy chamber. “I don’t think she’ll ever warm up to me.”

“Well, you did kind of yell at her, Sunset, and the rest of the Rainbooms the first time she met you,” Twilight reminded him with an edge of the snarky tone that, truth to tell, was one of the traits he enjoyed most about her.

“I did apologize,” he pointed out with an air of wounded dignity. “More than once. I did this time, too.”

“I guess not everypony can be won over by a diplomat, then.” This time the edge bit a little deeper; Cook winced, and Twilight sighed. “I’m sorry, Cook. All of us have gone through a lot, and maybe I haven’t found my balance again yet. I meant it as a joke, but I can see how it might not come across that way.” She straightened and set down the fountain pen floating in her purple aura. “Anyway, have a seat! What brings you here today?”

“Business, of course.” He shrugged as he came to a halt and casually plunked down just before her table. “I need to head up to Canterlot for an audience with Their Highnesses. There’ve been some changes—good ones, I promise.”

“Um . . . you know, they’re really busy up there,” Twilight cautioned. “They may not have much time to see you, especially with no notice.”

“I do know, and I don’t need a lot of time,” Cook assured her. “But while a chargé d’affaires normally presents his credentials to a foreign minister, it’s customary for an ambassador to present them to a head of state. Since I’m already accredited chief of mission, it’s a formality, but an important one—to show respect for Equestria as much as anything.”

Twilight took only a moment to realize what he meant. Her face lit with a broad smile. “Congratulations, Cook—or should I say, Your Excellency! I always thought it was more of an insult to you than to us that you were just a chargé. And I’m glad you didn’t get fired, like you were afraid would happen.”

“Thank you, Your Highness.” The newly minted ambassador bobbed a not wholly ironic bow. “It was touch and go for a while there. Those closed-door hearings were—let’s put it this way: I have an idea for a punishment to mete out in Tartarus. Don’t quote me on that.”

The young royal emitted a surprised giggle, then asked in an arch tone, “So did this help or hurt?” She reached across the table to flick the simple but handsome chivalric badge Cook wore on a midnight-blue ribbon around his neck. On a ground—or sky, really—of matching deep blue bordered in bright silver, the circle of enameled metal bore two fanciful crescent moons of pearlescent white side by side, waxing and waning.

“I think it was a wash,” Cook said judiciously. “Polarizing, actually. Everyone could find a way to argue it supported whatever side he or she was on. What carried the day, I suspect, was the knowledge it expressed in no uncertain terms Equestria’s opinion on the subject, even if it is just honorary.”

“I’ll bet they figured all four of us would send protests if they treated you badly.” Twilight’s smile twisted. “And they’d have been right. You’ve done a good job, Cook—for your country and for ours. We won’t forget that.”

The diplomat smiled back and thanked the princess with a formal nod. “Speaking of, how are the others? I suppose I should know that before tripping off to the palace.” In a quieter tone he added, “Besides, I really do care about them too.”

“Cadance is back home, and glad to be there. So are her family and her subjects.” Her sister-in-law smiled wryly. “And like I said, Celestia and Luna are awfully busy—what’s that terrible expression you used?”

“‘Busier than a one-armed paper-hanger’,” Cook quoted. “It is terrible, isn’t it? But expressive.”

The princess nodded agreement. “Equestria wasn’t devastated, but still, getting it back to normal is taking a lot of work.”

Cook’s brows went up. “I was under the impression you were able to undo a lot of the damage with the staff before it went poof.

“I was able to undo the damage the staff did,” Twilight replied uncomfortably, “but that doesn’t include the poor ponies, or Storm Minions, who were killed—not even the staff could return life where it was lost. And any physical damage the staff didn’t do has to be repaired or replaced using ordinary means. The last I heard there were some Storm Minion airships and troops still running around causing trouble, too.”

She gestured with a forehoof. “And that doesn’t count all the disruptions to ponies’ lives. The EUPG and the Royal Guard are having a terrible time. I don’t think there’ve been so many boards of inquiry and courts-martial in the whole history of either one, and a lot of other organizations are going through their own troubles like that.”

“Yes, I’ve heard about some of that from Rose.” Cook shook his head. “At least I only had to go through one grilling.”

“She’ll be fine, I’m sure.” Twilight sounded mostly confident. A booming crash from outside interrupted, and both ponies started.

“What in the world is going on out there, anyway?” Cook asked in bemusement.

“Um, well—it’s a big construction project.” The admission was distinctly sheepish. “Celestia and Luna were determined to deal with all the emergency stuff themselves, out of guilt, I think. At first I thought they were trying to protect me or something, but they said they wanted me to be more free to deal with anything else that came up—things like you showing up, I guess. So I decided to follow up an idea that would keep me busy, and be a benefit to Equestria, but wouldn’t tie me down completely.”

“It’s never fun to be a spare wheel, even when it’s necessary,” Cook commiserated. “But they also serve who only stand and wait. You still haven’t told me what it is, though.”

“Oh, didn’t I?” The scholarly young mare blinked, and Cook stifled an urge to laugh out loud. “Most of the time we were gone we spent galloping from pillar to post, but once in a while I had time to think. Some of that was . . . pretty bad. But sometimes—sometimes I’d remember a lesson or piece of advice I learned from my family, or Cadance, or Celestia, or my friends, or even you. By the time it was all over, I knew what I wanted to do and how I wanted to do it.”

Her voice became more animated as she warmed to her subject. “I’m the Princess of Friendship. It’s my job to find ways to spread friendship, to find ways to get along with others—other ponies, other creatures, other nations. So I came up with a school of friendship. A way to teach any creature who wants to learn how to find common ground, how to understand where others are coming from, how to ask for help when they need it or to give help when they can.”

The princess tapped the toe of a forehoof on the edge of her writing table. “If we had better connections with other realms like Mount Aris, the Storm King might not have taken us as much by surprise. We might have been able to help the hippogriffs, and we might have been able to stop the Storm King before he got as powerful as he did.”

“If you’re thinking it’s any easier in a digital world, well, I’m afraid I have to be the bearer of bad news.” Cook’s tone was gently humorous.

Twilight’s answering smile was brief but genuine. “I suppose I did wonder, with all those amazing ways to communicate or travel long distances.”

Cook cocked his head. “Just because avenues of communication exist doesn’t mean they’ll be used—or used properly, at least.”

“Do you think a school won’t work, then?” The question was sober.

“I don’t have any idea, Twilight. I honestly don’t,” Cook told her. “It’s worth a try, though. The answer for almost any social problem always seems to boil down to ‘better education’. Of course, improving communication and transportation can help, even if they aren’t complete solutions in themselves.”

Twilight’s smile this time was a little less tentative. “The crown’s already called for bids to drive a rail line, and a telegraph line, to Mount Aris, so I’m sure Celestia and Luna would agree with you there.”

Cook’s brow furrowed. “Yes, bids—and architects, and finding crews and materials during a construction crisis, and . . . you must have started this project of yours the day you got back to Ponyville.”

“Almost,” she admitted. “I want to finish and open for classes as soon as possible. It’s already past the Running of the Leaves. The weather crews are trying to steer the rain away from the site, but there’s only so much they can do, and nopony’s going to want to work during the winter. That puts it on a short time limit.”

“Before I just thought it was going to be expensive.” Cook looked troubled. “Now I think it’s going to be exorbitant. How are you paying for it?”

The princess drew herself up. “I’m plowing most of my royal stipend into it, and I’ve offered subscriptions. I don’t need the money, and the school does. Thanks to the Tree of Harmony, I have a place to live. It even repairs itself, at least minor scuffs and dings—and, uh, dragon bites. My household expenses aren’t that big, really.”

Cook opened his mouth, then paused. “Okay, you’ve thought this through. All I can say is ‘good fortune’, and I really mean that.”

“Thanks, Cook.” Twilight looked genuinely touched. “I don’t suppose you’d consider—”

“Maybe I can give an occasional seminar for the advanced students,” Cook interposed hastily. “I don’t think I’d be available for regular classes.”

“Oh. I guess I can understand that.” The young mare’s disappointment was palpable.

Cook steeled himself against Twilight’s hurt-puppy expression and cleared his throat. “I should get over to the train station. It’s open again, isn’t it?”

She nodded. “I’ll walk you downstairs, at least. Maybe I’ll go see how the work on the school is going.”


When they reached the vast, echoing main hallway on the ground floor, Cook glanced around. “I would swear this place is bigger on the inside.” Twilight’s only reply was a snort.

His gaze flicked to the grand double doors at the interior end of the hall. “Oh. I should apologize for messing around with the mirror. Well, Sunset and Rose helped.”

“That was you?” Scandalized didn’t begin to describe Twilight’s tone.

“Nopony told you?” Cook didn’t seem fazed. “Anyway, I’m sorry we had to do that, but we didn’t want the Storm King’s forces—only we didn’t know who they were yet—to get access to the portal.” He forbore to mention Rose’s original suggestion, not wanting to commit regicide by inducing an aneurysm.

“Ah . . . no, I guess that would’ve been a bad thing.” She gave him a glare, though she couldn’t seem to put much voltage into it. “You know, I had to move it back and reconstruct the whole mechanism from memory. And use the new journal to connect it.”

Cook shrugged. “That’s why I apologized. It was weird, though. After we were done, the map table lit up.”

Twilight stopped dead. “It what?”

Cook paused and looked back. “It put up the map and showed the Storm King’s forces—well, where they were, at least.”

“It’s never done anything like that before.” Her voice sounded stunned. “Especially when none of my friends or I are anywhere around.”

“Good thing it did. That was the only warning we got that we needed to hustle.”

“Yeah, good thing.” Twilight said nothing more until, out on the stoop, she bade him a preoccupied farewell, sending him on his way to the train station and Canterlot, before turning toward the raw, open foundations and basins that, someday soon, would grow into a new school.

Epilogue • The major

View Online

“Major Brass, Ma’am.” Raven Inkwell’s deferential announcement followed her brief knock on the doorjamb.

“Send her in, please, Raven.” The voice floating out through the open doorway was gentle and courteous.

The white-coated unicorn turned and nodded to the taller pegasus who’d followed her. “You can go right in, Major.” Her tone was perfectly serious, though a slight twinkle suggested she knew full well how unnecessary the instruction was.

The mares edged around each other, then Raven headed back down the dim, narrow corridor while Rose stepped forward. She blinked at the comparative brightness of the small, cozy study as she entered. To one side of the opposite corner, a fire crackled in a curvilinear fireplace; to the other, open curtains framed a set of tall windows looking out on midday snowfall partially obscuring the visible parts of Canterlot Palace.

Behind a low and very old-looking writing table piled high with paperwork, Princess Celestia, diarch and commander-in-chief of the Principality of Equestria, lay on the sort of brightly embroidered body cushion that often served the equine population in place of a desk chair. The major stamped her forehooves and braced with crisp precision. “Major Rose Brass, reporting as ordered, Your Royal Highness.”

The even larger mare looked her over, not at all discomfited by the officer’s ravaged face, fully exposed without a patch to cover any of the scars or the glass eye. “So I see, Major. Would you present those orders, please?”

Rose obediently moved closer and proffered a dispatch bag with her good wing. The bag itself, fine though it was, looked rather different than it had before transit through the portal. Despite Cook’s assurances legal instruments passed from one world to the other without alteration, she had double-checked to make sure, and was gratified to discover how correct the diplomat had been—right down to the exceedingly laconic and cryptic nature of the orders she carried with her. Indeed, the requirement to wear undress service uniform and not to wear her eyepatch for the meeting had stood out as one of the few specific points, and she’d wondered about it.

Celestia levitated the bag over and withdrew the sheaf from it; the brilliant white of the ink-jet paper contrasted sharply against the duller industrial-age sheets and the fine stationery already stacked on the tabletop. Somewhat absently she bade her guest, “Please make yourself comfortable, Major. Almost certainly we shall be here for some time.”

“Ma’am,” Rose acknowledged. She picked her way to the most generously proportioned of the pillow-like seats arranged in an arc before the princess’s table and settled on it with an uneasy mantling of wings. Indoors, and in the presence of a head of state, her headgear was held under her metal wing; it nearly fell before she belatedly clamped a better grip on it.

The portal had done its best with her brand-new uniform, but the result still came out decidedly odd. Rose felt dubious about the complete disappearance of the goldenrod-piped blue trousers, but the bright white blouse, dark necktie, and midnight tunic remained. The gold-edged passants bearing major’s tabs at the points of the shoulders suffered somewhat, equine shoulders having no points. Her ribbon rack, with its small, brightly colored rectangles symbolizing awards and achievements, perforce sat higher on her chest, but showed proudly.

Celestia looked up from the papers with another faint smile and nodded toward a corner supporting a slightly less towering stack of papers. “If you’d like, Major, you can put your cap on the desk.” Rose accepted the offer with some relief, extending her prosthetic wing to place her cover, as her military habit insisted on calling it, where indicated. The princess went on, “Would you care for some tea? Or perhaps coffee, since that seems to be the lifeblood of every military service.”

Rose nodded politely at the amused observation but didn’t dare refuse royal hospitality. “Thank you, Ma’am. A small cup of coffee wouldn’t go amiss.” Cook’s more poetic, and deliberately archaic, turn of phrase had rubbed off a little, she was bemused to note.

With the air of much practice, and without calling for a minion to do the work, her hostess promptly levitated a small urn and handleless mug of a style Rose associated with the navy, simultaneously placing cruets of cream and sugar before the guest. “I’m pleased to see the matter of your induction settled—even if you can’t wear it or talk about it anywhere but here.”

Involuntarily Rose glanced down at the ribbons marching in rows. There, among the more familiar patterns, nestled an ivory-white bar, at its middle a tiny golden sun with eight curly rays, and at each end a pair of matching vertical gold stripes. “Yes, Ma’am. It took . . . a lot of discussion. Foreign awards can be touchy in any service, and a foreign order of chivalry more so, even if it’s just honorary—but there is some precedent for it, so they were able to fall back on that.” Her attention remained determinedly on the cruets and mug rather than looking up. “The badge is restricted to dress uniform. For undress it’s ribbon only, and since the orders specified undress service uniform . . .” She trailed off and, rather than attempt to finish the sentence, took a sip of the quite excellent coffee.

“I was intrigued by the notion of simple, but practical, ribbons,” Celestia commented idly and perhaps mercifully as she returned to looking over the documents Rose had brought. “Here, of course, the Guard still issues only full medals and badges, and I suspect attempting to introduce ribbons at this time would be met with, shall we say, reluctance.”

“I don’t doubt it, Ma’am.” Rose essayed a hesitant smile. “Tradition is very important to the military mind.”

“So it is, and understandably,” the princess agreed as she put down the papers with an air of satisfied finality and peered more closely at the ribbon. “I presume the pair of stripes represents your honorary rank in the order, on both ends for symmetry?”

“That’s correct, Ma’am.”

“Then I shall convey my pleasure and thanks to the . . . Institute, is it not? . . . for their respectful and diligent attention to detail.” With another nod, Celestia closed the subject. “To you I convey my regrets you were forced to endure two boards of inquiry, not just one.”

Rose’s brow went up. “Thank you, Ma’am, but I’d have been shocked by any other outcome. The Guard certainly was justified in convening one, and I knew my own service would do so as well. If anything, the only surprise was how quickly both of them acted. I do appreciate the depositions going both ways, though; they were very positive, and I’m sure they were instrumental in the boards’ deliberations.”

“No doubt the report you provided to General Spitfire, and the copy the Guard provided to the Army, weighed in your favor as well. Of course, in the other direction, receiving copies of your recall to duty and promotion, not to mention assignment as attaché to Mister Cook, came as quite a surprise—as much to the both of you, I gather, as to the Guard’s board members.” Very much in evidence was the mischievous humor that inspired said diplomat to murmur very quietly, safely on the other side of the portal and out of Sunset’s hearing, the half-affectionate, half-exasperated nickname “Trollestia”. “I feel certain those orders must have been cut, and backdated, while the three of you were here in Equestria, whatever their actual wording.”

When Rose bit her lip, the princess relented, regarding her with cool approval. “You are an exemplary officer, Major, so I expected nothing less than the glowing findings rendered by both boards. And I am pleased your government acted promptly to protect you, even if it did mean resorting to backdating.”

There was nothing for Rose to do but nod—and swallow a lump in the throat. “Thank you, Ma’am. That truly means a great deal to me.”

“You are welcome,” Celestia answered with a smile of empathy rather than mischief. More briskly, she continued, “Now then. I had been receiving your reports through Princess Twilight, of course, but I wish to be brought up to date about the sirens.” Her tone became dry. “There’s been something of an interruption, after all.”

“They’re not happy,” Rose admitted, not happily. “They expected me to be around a while longer, and I expected to be there. The bureaucracy wasn’t happy either, since there’s no one else with a security clearance available to take over their case. The only way to cut through the thicket was for Mister Logos Rhetor and Ms. Harmonia, their former foster parents, to take the coursework and receive certification from Social Services. That created its own complications, but everything about the case has been outside the lines.” Her wings shrugged. “It’s not ideal, but it should work.”

“And their therapy?”

“That, at least, is progressing as well as can be expected.” Rose sighed through her nose, mouth tight. “I still believe they should, and probably will, elect to live in the other world for the long term, since they lack even the most basic magic now. But the therapist and I also think they eventually may need supplementary treatment here, because we can’t escape the nagging feeling there may be factors relating to this world we simply can’t address. However, that’s for the future, and is not imminent.”

“I shall speak to Twilight about working out a new reporting process with Mister Rhetor and Ms. Harmonia, then,” Celestia thought out loud. “Be that as it may. Major Brass, I apologize for upending your work and your life, but as you discovered during your time up north, your combination of military and counseling backgrounds is unique—at least here, in this world—and as it happens, I have an urgent need for exactly that combination.”

“Ma’am?” Rose’s brow furrowed in puzzled concern.

Celestia’s alicorn lit, and a matching golden glow tugged on a dangling tapestry pull, ringing a bell somewhere in the depths of the palace. “I requested your attachment to the Guard for an unusual duty. You will watch over, in every sense of that phrase, a younger, but senior, retired officer—minder, counselor, and bodyguard, all in one. You are a good match in several respects: you are similarly an outsider, you have the maturity of your greater years, and you are not accepting of obstructionism. In short, as your mark indicates, you are as close to ideal for the task as any individual I know of.”

Rose’s hide twitched in equine reflex at the reference, causing the budding red rose on bronze heater shield that graced each of her haunches to ripple nervously. At her first sight of it in the Everfree, during the flight from Twilight’s tower, the mark had seemed nothing more than a simple rebus. After working to help so many distraught guardsponies—and others—in the wake of the infantry battle at the junction town and while billeted in the crystal tower, it seemed somehow inevitable. “May I ask what task, Ma’am?” A hint of desperation crept into the question. “My orders were . . . unusually unclear about that. Well, about almost everything, including how long the assignment would last.”

“You may ask, and it will become clear shortly.” Celestia’s attention was on the door. “As for duration, I simply don’t know. It depends entirely on how well, or poorly, matters progress.”

Rose opened her mouth again, but before she could speak the door behind her opened. She twisted around to look.

In the doorway stood a unicorn mare every bit as tall and fit, but more heavily built and at least a decade younger. Her claret coat was short and weathered. A tall, stiff reddish ruff ran down the back of her neck, more like a true mane than the head-of-hair most ponies sported. Her aqua eyes were strangely melancholy; a scar ran above and below one of them, though the damage did not seem to extend to the eyeball itself. Most of all, though, it was the alicorn that drew one’s attention: ragged and ugly, more than half its length simply gone, jagged keratin scabbing over what otherwise would be exposed bone and nerve tissue.

Suddenly Rose understood why she had been ordered not to wear her eyepatch. The pegasus scrambled to her feet and faced the newcomer, who looked back with a sort of forlorn pride. Behind her, Celestia said quietly, “Major Rose Brass, this is Colonel Tempest Shadow.”