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Fire's Rise (F&S II) Part 1 (Complete)

By Lurkernon
Created: 20th December 2020 05:29:51 AM

  1. Originally posted May 2019
  2.  
  3. Note: Reading Fire and Sky (part 1 ponepaste.org/2322; part 2 ponepaste.org/2325) necessary to understand this story. Other F&S shorts not necessary.
  4.  
  5. ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
  6.  
  7. > From the second it all began, you had an inkling that this job was going to be trouble.
  8. > No sense of exactly how much, of course.
  9. > But the second you saw the two men striding across the runway, black suits buttoned up against the late-spring winds and sunglasses covering their eyes, you knew trouble was coming.
  10. “Yo, Anonymous.”
  11. > “Mrrf?”
  12. > A nudge with a hind-hoof draws his attention; eyes rise from his laptop-screen and headphones fall from his head.
  13. > “What is it, Spits?”
  14. > Wordlessly you point with a hoof at the approaching figures, marching practically in lockstep towards you.
  15. > “...oh, fuck. Who are they, FAA?”
  16. “I don’t see badges or patches.”
  17. > The laptop snaps shut and your owner rises, hurriedly evening out his loose and rumpled jacket as best he can.
  18. > It doesn’t help much; neither does the hand run through his hair.
  19. > And you happen to know your mane was almost as much of a spiky mess as his hair was.
  20. > “Okay, either secret service or business. Either way, good behavior.”
  21. > You both glance at each other, confirming what each of you already knew:
  22. > If it was business, you did not look like a good team to hire.
  23. > “Mister Anonymous?”
  24. > Both are barely close enough when one calls out, raising a hand.
  25. > “Yes, that would be me.”
  26. > “And you must be Spitfire, yes?”
  27. “I am, yes.”
  28. > “Very glad to meet both of you!”
  29. > ...okay, that’s different.
  30. > Most hirers tended to regard you as a curiosity at best.
  31. > More often, as invisible until there was some work to be done.
  32. > But the man’s eyes had come alight when you had confirmed your identity; that had been outright respect in his voice.
  33. > “My name is Thomas Atmos. I’m looking to hire you for a job I need done.”
  34. > “Well, I’d certainly like to see if we can fit you in. We have a web service for scheduling our time, and I can show you-”
  35.  
  36. > “I’ve already looked at it. It’s only good for scheduling individual jobs, and I’m going to need a little bit more.”
  37. > Another questioning glance is shot between the two of you.
  38. "A little bit more?"
  39. > "Actually a whole lot more. A few months' worth of your time, at minimum."
  40. > "That's... a lot of time, Mr. Atmos. My contract schedule-"
  41. > "True, it is. But your work will be fairly rewarded - far in excess of what your temporary contracts could have paid you."
  42. > Still, Anonymous hesitates.
  43. > Thomas breaks it - gesturing off towards the edge of the airport.
  44. > "Look - why don't to two of you come share a bite to eat - my treat - and we can talk over the details a bit. Does that sound good?"
  45. > The ride over to the diner is taken mostly in silence.
  46. > From the second you step in, however, food becomes the last thing on your mind.
  47. > Anonymous looks out of place in the restaurant - his rough coat standing in stark contrast to the smooth jackets worn by other guests.
  48. > This was the sort of higher-class place neither of you would normally have gone:
  49. > Where the food cost twice as much but came half as quickly.
  50. > You, however, look truly out of place.
  51. > The only pony customer in the whole establishment, a little furred standout amid a sea of clothes.
  52. > Tartarus' teats, except for an occasional flash of pastel fur you caught through the kitchen doors not even the staff were ponies!
  53. > All of this contributes to your feeling even more that something is very, very odd here.
  54. > When Thomas finally speaks, it’s with a surprisingly friendly tone:
  55. > "I - hadn't realized you'd named your plane after the gr- after her."
  56. > "Huh?"
  57. > Despite the comment being directed at Anonymous you turn an ear to listen too.
  58. > Despite the comment being directed at Anonymous you turn an ear to listen too.
  59. > Thomas gives a light, sad smile.
  60. > " 'Giselle' - I saw it on the side of the nose of your plane. That was the griffon hen who - was killed while you were in Equestria, right?"
  61.  
  62. “That was her, yes.”
  63. > Placing a hand on your withers, Anonymous nods.
  64. > “It was Spitfire’s idea, actually. That we shouldn’t forget how she’d helped us.”
  65. > Or that she had given up her dream of freedom to help you.
  66. > Thomas’ lips curl up into a bit of a smile.
  67. > “It is worth remembering, yes. Far too often, I find, sacrifices made go unrecorded…”
  68. > Anonymous meets his grin.
  69. > “Especially for - well, another flier. She especially, I guess I felt a little sadness for.”
  70. > While Anonymous seemed content feeling out Thomas with smalltalk, you'd set to work evaluating his partner:
  71. > His name, it transpired, was Gregory Whitworth.
  72. > A round-faced man with a blank expression who checked his phone every two minutes on a punctual basis.
  73. > When he spoke - rarely - he did so with the light twang of someone from the south-west of the country.
  74. > Not to mention seeming to practically look straight through you - as if you weren't even there.
  75. > That at least you were used to from humans.
  76. > Except that he looks at Anonymous the same way too.
  77. > As something not worth seeing.
  78. > Your owner can feel it too, and eventually he drops his fork and folds his arms - staring the two businessmen down.
  79. > "So, on to business. You're looking for someone who can do the kind of remote, rough-location deliveries I do. One that, considering how you're wining and dining me and my, uh, co-worker you need me for badly. Probably soon."
  80. > "It's actually a bit different than that, Mister Anonymous. We're not looking for something to be delivered, exactly."
  81. "We do other kinds of jobs from time to time. Sightseeing, pickup-"
  82. > Thomas laughs softly, shaking his head.
  83. > "You won't need to worry about that. You'll be just flying to and from where we direct."
  84. "Carrying... what?"
  85. > "About thirty-eight thousand pounds of cargo, plus six persons minimum. Not including additional flight crew."
  86. > Your tail twitches, and Anonymous whistles gently.
  87.  
  88. > "I'm afraid you might have the wrong crew. That's well beyond what my 'Giselle' can carry."
  89. > "We are aware. However, we intend to hire your services - not necessarily your plane. One more suitable for our needs, but still fitting with your skills, would be provided."
  90. "Wait, what? You'll just give us a plane?"
  91. > "You know my plane is the largest thing I've ever flown, right? And that'll kind of leave Spitfire without a job. You might be better off finding an airliner pilot-"
  92. > Whitworth smiles - a touch condescendingly, you think.
  93. > "Airliner pilots do not have experience performing water takeoffs and landings. Nor do they have experience flying in Equestria."
  94. > Thomas adds with a nod towards you:
  95. > "Or have firsthand knowledge of navigating. Pardon, firsthoof?"
  96. > There's a beat while that information trickles down through everyone involved.
  97. > Your coat is standing on end, the sense that something bizarre is going on here only increasing by the moment.
  98. > Anonymous is the first to speak, shifting uncomfortably and tapping his fingers on the tabletop.
  99. > "Back there again..."
  100. > "We're aware of the circumstances you encountered on your last... excursion. This time things will be rather better prepared; you'll rendezvous with a fuel and supplies base there."
  101. "What, exactly, are we even carrying?"
  102. > A note of annoyance crosses Thomas' face.
  103. > "That, I'm afraid, is private information until your contract is signed and underway."
  104. > "So, you want me to fly a plane I've never been at the controls of before, through a place that did its absolute best to try and murder me the last time I was there, with a cargo you will tell me nothing about."
  105. > When he puts it like that, you can tell Anonymous' danger-sense is screaming at exactly the same volume yours is.
  106. > "...in a manner of speaking, Mr. Anonymous. You will of course be given training on the new platform."
  107.  
  108. > The men across the table can apparently see it too; Whitworth withdraws a notepad from his jacket and scratches a pair of numbers on it.
  109. > "And you will be rewarded in accordance. We will cover upkeep and fuel costs; this figure will be paid daily while you are under contact, including during training and preparation time; this figure-"
  110. > Manicured fingers point from one to the other.
  111. > "-on completion of your contract with us."
  112. > Your heart is beating heavily for a rather different reason now.
  113. > Those numbers have... a lot more zeros than you're used to seeing.
  114. > Yet you can't shake the feeling something is very wrong here.
  115. > You'd heard about things like this happening, back when you were a Wonderbolt.
  116. > Ponies are approached out of the blue by mysterious employers who offer immense riches...
  117. > It never ended well.
  118. > Okay, most of those stories were more legend than truth.
  119. > But this was undeniably true.
  120. > Real.
  121. > And you're left with the sense that someone was dangling a lure in front of your face just a touch too hard.
  122. > You look to Anonymous; he does the same, and both of you see the same thing in each others' eyes.
  123. > This was a poisoned opportunity.
  124. "I think we're going to have to say no, unfortunately. Celestia knows I'd like to go home again... but we've both had enough of unexpected trips there."
  125. > Whitworth's look hardens from condescension into anger.
  126. > "You let your property make decisions for you, Mr Anonymous?"
  127. > "When Spitfire and I are thinking on the same wavelength - damn right I trust her to speak for me."
  128. > Stepping in before things can get too heated, Thomas raises his hands defensively.
  129. > "That's fine. That's why we came looking for the two of you - that kind of trust is exactly what we need."
  130. > Anonymous seems placated, but is still frowning.
  131. > "I'm still not sure I see a good reason to take this kind of risk."
  132. > "Because we are paying you a frankly stupid amount of money to do it, Mr. Anonymous."
  133.  
  134. > This time Anonymous meets him point-for-point, though.
  135. > "You know, a while back I discovered there's a lot more to life than money. I'd prefer to stay not-rich but safe and flying, thanks."
  136. > "And because we know you've been letting your property fly the plane."
  137. > A ball of both icy fear and explosive anger congeals between your ribs.
  138. "Well, screw you too."
  139. > "What Spits said. That's fucking blackmail!"
  140. "Actually I meant about the 'property' part. He's kind of right about the flying part."
  141. > Your owner shoots you a dark look; you'll be hearing about that later.
  142. “What? He already knows; it’s not like I’m telling him anything new.”
  143. > Thomas clears his throat.
  144. > "I didn't want to let things get to this point, but... we have evidence that you have been allowing Spitfire take control of your plane in flight. I'm sure you know, that would be against the law for a commercial aircraft. If discovered, you would lose your license at the very least."
  145. > And that'd be the end for you.
  146. > Anonymous would see you to safety, of course, but you hardly wanted to leave him alone...
  147. > Both tail and wings were twitching now, an itchy feeling building in your back between them.
  148. > Ready for a fight.
  149. > Fortunately Anonymous is there, his hand descending to scratch along your spine.
  150. > "You'll need to assure me that if I do this work, we'll be safe."
  151. > Face returning to a more friendly expression, Thomas nods.
  152. > "Naturally. We have nothing personal against your... crewing decisions, Mr. Anonymous. In fact, we expect you to continue them while in our employ. But that employment is not a negotiable point, I'm afraid. Once our work is done, we will both go our separate, satisfied ways."
  153. > "Alright."
  154. > Anonymous leans forward, both hands on the table.
  155. > "Then I'll accept, on three conditions."
  156. > "Name them."
  157.  
  158. > "One: I fly my Giselle - my plane - to Equestria and leave it there. Once the job is done, I go back and recover it before coming back here. Payment for its storage will be delivered in advance."
  159. > "Done. We will arrange a portal-crossing permit for it. Second?"
  160. > "Second. You mentioned additional flight crew - for the bigger plane, I guess? I will make any and all decisions on hiring for those positions."
  161. > Whitworth's eyes narrow.
  162. > "We already have some candidates for those positions."
  163. > "I'll vet them and approve or reject."
  164. > "I want to at least specify the other pilot and copilot."
  165. > "You're putting me way outside my comfort zone already, but I never fly with crew I don't trust. Blackmail won't move me; it won't matter if I'm dead. Pilot only."
  166. > An angry growl emerges from Whitworth's throat, but Thomas nods.
  167. > "Pilot only then, Mr. Anonymous. What's third?"
  168. > "I need to know what I'm carrying, in full detail."
  169. > "You will be briefed on its general characteristics later, but the details are confidential. It will be sealed in the cargohold for the duration of the flight."
  170. > "Unacceptable."
  171. > "We are professionals, Mr. Anonymous."
  172. > "So am I, and can I remind you that cargo safety is plane safety? I don't-"
  173. > Safety.
  174. > That's what it was.
  175. > It'd taken a moment for you to detect the note of fear in your owner's voice, but now you understood.
  176. > He was afraid.
  177. "Anonymous, stop."
  178. > A wing extends to touch his shoulder, and he in fact does.
  179. "...Mr Atmos, Mr Whitworth - I expect you will have experts securing this cargo in place?"
  180. > "Of course!"
  181. > You look back to Anonymous, still touching his shoulder.
  182. "It'll be okay. I know you hate to not check the cargo yourself-"
  183. > Hate to risk a repeat of the accident that had killed Eddie, his last copilot.
  184. "-but I don't think they will leave it half-done."
  185. > "Absolutely not."
  186. > Thomas leans in, putting both his hands on the table.
  187.  
  188. > "Because it will be my safety too. I'll be right there on the plane with you the whole time."
  189. > Puffing his cheeks, Anonymous sighs.
  190. > "Yeah. Okay. Alright, I'll give on this."
  191. > “I’m glad we could come to an agreement on this, Mr. Anonymous.”
  192. “...yeah.”
  193. > It is better than the inside of a cage, you suppose.
  194. > An envelope is slid across the table from Atmos.
  195. > “This contains our contact information and starting dates for the work, along with a starting payment for your trouble. Can we offer you a ride back ho- to your plane?”
  196. > Anonymous tucks the envelope into his jacket with a shake of his head.
  197. > “I think we’ll be fine. C’mon, Spits.”
  198. > Outside, he hikes up his collar against the wind.
  199. > You roughly do the same, letting your wings at last twitch and flutter - dispersing the nervous energy that had been building in them.
  200. “...so.”
  201. > “So.”
  202. “We just got strong-hoofed into another job in Equestria.”
  203. > “Yep.”
  204. > An awkward silence falls between the two of you.
  205. > “Can I ask you one thing, Spits?”
  206. “Yeah?”
  207. > “Did you talk me down from refusing them because you wanted to go home again?”
  208. > You roll your eyes.
  209. “Fuck no. This whole thing is already feeling twisty like a tornado, and I have a sense it’s just going to get even worse.”
  210. > Anonymous grunts - a low noise of unhappy agreement.
  211. “Can I ask you something?”
  212. > “Shoot.”
  213. “You got any clue who in the great blue sky we’re going to hire to do this thing?”
  214. > “Still figuring that one out.”
  215. > Great.
  216. > If you didn’t trust him with your life, you’d be seriously worried right now.
  217. > Oh wait.
  218. > You are seriously worried.
  219. > The near-death experience on the last adventure to Equestria wasn’t entirely out of your mind again.
  220. > But in a way, it’s at least good to know Anonymous riding the same wind you are.
  221. > Back at the plane, you wait while he slits the envelope open and ponders its contents.
  222.  
  223. > "Well, Spits, in a little under a couple weeks we're to show up at a place north of here, in Canada. Sproat Lake. We'll meet the rest of our crew and new ride there, then start training."
  224. "Canada, huh?"
  225. > You hop up onto the desk, nosing through the scattered papers to find a map and set of GPS coordinates.
  226. "That’s another country. Do I need a - a little book-ey thing to let me in?"
  227. > "A passport? I need one but you're fine - just health documents."
  228. > Ah, right.
  229. > Property, not a full being.
  230. "What about until then?"
  231. > "We'll finish up another few jobs. That should give us plenty of time to get ourselves in order before we see what this is all about."
  232. > And maybe by then he’d have some idea on where you’d find a crew crazy enough to come along on this mad-mare’s mission.
  233. > Tossing the envelope aside, Anonymous shoots you a grin.
  234. > "Just look at the upside - Canada should be beautiful flying country this time of year."
  235. “Aw yeah, I’ve always wanted to go on a vacation under threat of imprisonment.”
  236.  
  237. --------
  238.  
  239. > Canada looks just about the same as anywhere else, in your opinion.
  240. > You're not sure why you expected it to be different, but somehow the idea of visiting another human nation had lead you to expect... more.
  241. > Anonymous had laughed when you'd told him.
  242. > "It's just a line on a map, Spitfire. Nothing more."
  243. > Indeed - the hills below were just as beautiful:
  244. > Rolling lines of rich green trees split by mixed bands murky-blue water.
  245. > You half wish the flight's long hours could have been spent on your own wings, slipping low among the late-spring bloom and skimming along the water’s surface instead of serenely passing them over.
  246. > Alas, no such luck.
  247. > The lake appears in an instant from just between two hills:
  248. > Not your typical roughly-round pool of water, but a long and vaguely sword-like strip of rich blue tucked between the rises.
  249. "There. One o'clock ahead, maybe sixty miles. Sproat Lake, you called it?"
  250. > "That'd be it, yeah. Turn us to zero-six-zero and line up an approach from the southwest; our destination is on the north branch of the lake. I'll see if I can reach them on the radio."
  251. > In all honesty, you can see why they would choose this place for the base of operations.
  252. > The lake has more than enough area and has little crosswind.
  253. > Idly you wonder if the fishing in this lake is any good.
  254. > That wasn't normally your thing, but if you're going to be stuck here anyway…
  255. > An abundance of boats creeping by beneath you suggests there’s at least a chance of catching something good.
  256. "Two hundred off the water."
  257. > "That's good. Bring us down gentle; we can burn some distance heading towards the side of the lake."
  258. > You eat up nearly half the water's length before bringing the plane to a stop.
  259. > Anonymous, his nose buried in his phone, points to a distant cluster of buildings ahead.
  260. > "Okay, head thataway and slow. A boat will probably come out to meet us. I have the throttle."
  261. "Affirmative."
  262.  
  263. > With Anonymous reaching up to handle the controls out of your reach, you bring the plane's nose around.
  264. > You can't deny letting your attention slip and eyes range over the encampment up ahead - especially when a large shape detaches itself from one of the roofs and takes to wing.
  265. > It ducks and weaves, swerving back and forth between buildings and wheels behind-
  266. "Holy shit, that's a big plane!"
  267. > All thoughts of the flyer vanish as you set eyes on a looming, fat-bodied airframe laying at the top of a slipway - gleaming in fresh red and white paint.
  268. > Four engines on high-set wings suggesting some distant relationship to your own flying boat, in the same way that ponies held a distant relationship to a giraffe.
  269. > "Language, Spitfire. I'm rubbing off on you too much."
  270. "Oh, excuse me - sweet Celestia's teats, that's a big plane!"
  271. > Anonymous chuckles, but is nodding.
  272. > "Martin JRM Mars. Those’re the last two left in the world. They’re big beasties for sure."
  273. "Are we - we’re not flying -”
  274. > “Probably are. I had it figured as soon as they told us where to go - I think one of those is our ride for this job."
  275. > One of…?
  276. > A second later you spot the second plane - vested dark blue paint that masked it in comparison to its brightly-toned brother.
  277. > It feels - looks - massive compared to what you’re flying already.
  278. > And there were days when you already had to wrestle the controls with all your might!
  279. > Thoughts still drifting, you watch a little boat puttering out to meet you.
  280. > Just like Anonymous had predicted.
  281. > You're already out the plane's hatch, tow line ready, as he guides you up to a buoy to tie off on.
  282. > Anonymous joins you once the engines are shut down; as the boat nears shore a figure steps out to wave at you.
  283. > Thomas Atmos again.
  284. > “Hello, hello! I’m glad you got here without any trouble. Come, I’ll show you what we’ve done here.”
  285. > Shaking his hand once he’s stepped out of the boat, Anonymous looks around the bustling slipway.
  286.  
  287. > “Quite the little operation you’ve got here.”
  288. > Little was one way to describe it.
  289. > This might not have been as large as some of the airports you've visited, but there was plenty going on.
  290. > Men, women, and even the odd pony all in high-visibility vests swarmed over one of the two colossal aircraft.
  291. > Trucks and vans sat beside it, cables snaking into its hull like a tangle of vines; the air was thick with the buzzing hum of air compressors.
  292. > Anonymous gestures to the activity.
  293. > "You've been busy. Coulson Tankers still flying out of here?"
  294. > "No, we leased the site from them when we bought the Mars. Needed somewhere to do our work, and they already had their equipment here."
  295. "You've done a lot of work on the plane?"
  296. > Thomas nods.
  297. > "A complete overhaul. I was going to have you meet my crew first-”
  298. > A touch of anger spikes within you.
  299. "I thought we were going to pick the crew."
  300. > "You will. This is my staff - myself and five others who'll be traveling with you."
  301. > Oh, passengers.
  302. > You suddenly feel foolish about snapping at him; was getting roped into this affecting you that badly?
  303. > Thomas shoots you an apologetic look.
  304. > "We do also have a few flight crew we'd like the two of you to at least interview. But the final call will be yours."
  305. > He leads you inside one of the buildings, a markedly newer and cleaner one at the edge of the property.
  306. > Inside is an office - or what passes for one in the tiny space.
  307. > Messy, chaotic, overflowing with cables and papers, and populated by two more men, a woman, an earth pony stallion, and a unicorn mare.
  308. > The latter two immediately perk up when you enter, eyeing the heavy shock collar on your throat with undisguised curiosity.
  309. > "Anonymous, Spitfire, this is the rest of my team."
  310. > Gesturing to each in turn, Thomas rattlese their names off with a friendly familiarity.
  311. > "Fred Baltich, Michelle Madreau, Sai Ahura, Bell Curve, and Logic Gate.”
  312.  
  313. > The latter two refer to the earth pony and unicorn respectively; you trot forward to greet each one in turn with cautious sniffs and investigative nuzzles.
  314. > Eventually Bell Curve lifts a hoof; you tap it in greeting with one of your own.
  315. “Spitfire. Good to meet you.”
  316. > “Bell Curve. Mostly they just call me Curve. I hear you’re the one we’re going to be trusting our lives with.”
  317. > His dubious eyes are settling on your shock collar, you laugh it off with a wing-gesture towards Anonymous.
  318. “Me and him both.”
  319. > “Is that thing real?”
  320. “Huh?”
  321. > Bell Curve gestures to your shock collar.
  322. > “That. We don’t see many of them up here; they’re illegal to sell in Canada but not to import, so most people don’t bother.”
  323. > Huh.
  324. > It’d never occurred to you that a different nation might have actual different laws on how ponies are treated.
  325. “Yeah, it’s real. But-”
  326. > No dwelling on this; time to change the subject.
  327. “But it’s not just me and Anonymous; we’re going to have a larger crew.”
  328. > “Speaking of which-”
  329. > Thomas cuts in.
  330. > “-speaking of which, I did promise you a rough explanation of the cargo. Now’s as good a time as any, so let me explain: It’s not actually cargo. It’s something far, far more special.”
  331. > You raise an eyebrow; Logic Gate gives a little tinkling laugh and shakes her head.
  332. > “Quit being so dramatic and just explain it, Tom.”
  333. > “Give me my moment, Gate! It’s rare I get to do this. Okay, look - it’s not cargo dropped off, it’s a surveying device we’re carrying around.”
  334. > Anonymous cocks his head.
  335. > “What, magnetometric? Ground penetrating radar?”
  336. > “And a gravimeter… and something new. We’re hunting magically-reactive resources; there’s been nothing done like it before.”
  337. “Magically-reactive resource? You mean like some of the ores, or pegasus-worked clouds?”
  338.  
  339. > “Kind of, yeah. This could be the next huge revolution in technology - incorporating magi-materials into products!”
  340. > Sweeping aside a whole roster of papers on the room’s largest table, Thomas reveals a vast map of Equestria, already heavily inked with location markers.
  341. > “These are the regions we’ve had some initial readings on, but to do a more thorough mapping we’ll need to do low and slow flights - lots, back and forth.”
  342. “And you’re all in on this?”
  343. > Across the room, Sai nods.
  344. > “Thomas was the one who pioneered the sensor technology, but this is all of our work.”
  345. > Logic Gate snickers from her seat.
  346. > “It’s his little baby, so he gets kind of eager to explain about it.”
  347. > You hop up onto a chair and from there onto the table, peering down at the map.
  348. > Most of the inked areas are around north-west Equestria - lakes and rivers suitable for landing on marked out alongside the search pattern.
  349. > Anonymous joins you at the table’s edge, looking over the map.
  350. > “Any thoughts, Spitfire?”
  351. “Well, at least we’re on the far side of Equestria from the griffon kingdoms. Zebrica’s far to the south, dragons mostly on the whole other side of the continent, Yaks up north but they won’t be trouble… hey, this might not be too bad.”
  352. > “Yaks?”
  353. “Far northern neighbors. They mostly keep to themselves. Never gave us trouble, even when everything started to fall apart.”
  354. > He grunts.
  355. > “So, not likely to have any repeats of what happened last time.”
  356. “I didn’t say that. This is well outside the Special Governance Zone-”
  357. > Not that you were fond of the human-governed heart of Equestria.
  358. “-and the Crystal Empire, so we’re not going to be seeing any pony patrols either. Well, not official patrols. There might be other groups out there. Settlers, remnants, anyone who managed to survive. They might not be happy to see us.”
  359.  
  360. > Thomas points to a spot off those coast, marked ‘MS Scatturlas’:
  361. > “Good news is, we’ll be landing for refuel and resupply with a converted cargo vessel off the coast. So, we don’t have to worry about that much.”
  362. “That’s good, but judging by some of these flight paths we’re either going to fly through the nights, or have to touch down in a lake and set a watch.”
  363. > Reaching over your shoulder, your owner traces some of the lines with his finger and nods.
  364. > “Not quite as likely as you think - that Mars is a bit faster than our Giselle - but it’ll still be a thing.”
  365. “Speaking of which… can we see it? The one we’re going to be taking?”
  366. > “Sure. Follow me outside.”
  367. > There's no need to crawl into the Mars’ belly on your stomach; a full-size hatch on its blood-red side on its side lets you - and even the humans - through without any trouble.
  368. > Your first impression of the interior is, in a word, 'cavernous'.
  369. > The space is massive, maybe twice the width of Anonymous' own plane.
  370. > Even with a spiraling stairway occupy a third of the compartment you'd just passed into, it is far less enclosing; the next space forward is empty entirely and you can stretch your wings without even tip-feathers touching the walls.
  371. > Only after a few moments do the details start to leap out at you:
  372. > A fresh, paint-ey kind of smell from the white walls that suggest it had recently seen a new coat, in direct contrast to your plane’s flaking, aged skin.
  373. > Thick, gleaming pistons visible through a gap in the ceiling - between the decks, you would guess, and maybe part of the control system that was nothing but taught wires on yours.
  374. > Everything about this plane is… more.
  375. > Bigger.
  376. > Enhanced.
  377. "I can't believe the size of this thing!"
  378. > Thomas chuckles.
  379. > "Enjoy it. Once we're all stuffed inside with the gear, it won't seem so comfortable. Upper deck’s a bit better."
  380. > Anonymous nods.
  381. > “You’ve refurbished all the equipment?
  382.  
  383. > "The water tanks too?"
  384. > "Gone. Except for a few we converted over to carry fuel - give us a bit more range. I’ll show you.”
  385. > He turns and starts walking back towards the rear of the aircraft.
  386. > Here bunks had been added - low, double level things that leave little room to stoop in.
  387. > Even with them, it feels like twice the space your plane had.
  388. > “We’ll have six beds in here. Hot plate and a bathroom behind that, then two more beds and supplies.”
  389. > At the end of the lower deck is a ladder - up, you presume, to the top deck.
  390. > It emerges in the center of a somewhat wider space; Thomas points back to a narrow compartment at the very rear of the craft.
  391. > “Back there is the tail control gear and the two auxiliary power engines. We got those new too, replaced the old ones when we had to move them.”
  392. “What’s in the compartment now? The one they used to be in?”
  393. > “Two more bunks for my team, a bit of storage, and the cargo space.”
  394. > You turn, peering forwards towards the front of the aircraft.
  395. > Nothing but more of the same light-green paint that the rest of the interior is covered with.
  396. > But at the end of that stairway is a hatch, conspicuously painted with the words 'NO UNAUTHORIZED ENTRY'.
  397. > As if the padlock didn't make it clear enough.
  398. “Tight security, huh?”
  399. > “Like I said before, the… uh, cargo is very important. And delicate.”
  400.  
  401. > Behind you, Anonymous counts off on his fingers.
  402. > “So, uh, five of your team - no, six. You said you’d be coming along… six of your team and eight flight crew.”
  403. > “Exactly!”
  404. “What’s behind the cockpit?”
  405. > “Not much. It’s larger than you think. There’s a little room for supplies, but not much. Follow me.
  406. > You shoot one last glance at the locked door to the ‘cargo’ space - at the lock on that door - and follow your owner back down to the lower deck.
  407. > As he’d said, there’s very little room behind the cockpit.
  408. > Mostly because it, too, is expansive and roomy just like the rest of the plane.
  409. > In fact, they seem to have put in even more storage shelving - presumably for additional trip supplies.
  410. > You whistle softy, peering around the entire space.
  411. “So, four people on the flight crew - pilot, copilot, navigator…?”
  412. > “Flight engineer.”
  413. > Thomas points back to a console at the rear of the cockpit - littered with dials and gauges you don’t quite understand.
  414. > “The navigator helps them a lot, actually. It’s a lot to manage.”
  415. > Extending a wing, you point with feather-tips at a hatch mounted to the rear wall behind the engineer’s console.
  416. “Where’s that go to?”
  417. > “Oh, that? There’s a crawl-space through the wing spars, between the cockpit and cargo space back there. We’ve closed that up since we’ll be using that area back there.”
  418. > Anonymous nods, patting the back of the pilot’s seat.
  419. > “And Coulson Tankers didn’t want to lend you any of their crew, huh?”
  420. > “You’ll train with them, but no - no lending for whole operation. A couple suggested they’d be willing to quit to join us.”
  421. “Is that the pilot your, uh - friend? Business partner? Whitworth - is that the one he was talking about?”
  422. > “The other pilot? Yes, that’s him. I’m going to be honest with you two: Whitworth’s going to insist on getting those two on the crew. Otherwise, you’ve got pretty free rein.”
  423.  
  424. > To your surprise, Thomas actually sounds genuinely sorry about it.
  425. > “I know I said it would be just one, but he’s getting rather insistent. Wants his own eyes and ears on the crew.”
  426. “And you can’t tell him to fuck off, huh?”
  427. > Snorting, he shakes his head.
  428. > “He’s our funder. The cargo, uh, gear - all of that is my work. But his company paid for it. And we’re all in his pocket until it gets paid off.”
  429. > And they can take it away.
  430. > Does anyone here truly have freedom?
  431. “How long will we have to train?”
  432. > “Three months, after we have the whole crew assembled.”
  433. > From up near the front, Anonymous calls back:
  434. > “Alright, Thomas. Mind if we poke around in here a little bit more?”
  435. > “Sure, sure. Just don’t break anything, okay?”
  436. > It’s all you can do to keep from rolling your eyes, but you manage to suppress the impulse at least until Thomas is gone.
  437. > Already Anonymous had settled into the pilot’s seat, and now you join him in the opposite one - resting a hoof on the control wheel.
  438. > You’re eyeing the control panel, but can feel your ears flicking about nervously.
  439. “I recognize some of this, but others are… totally new. Especially the engineer’s station. Where are we going to find someone who knows about that?”
  440. > “Some of that I know - a lot of it was fuel trim controls. But I can’t be back there.”
  441. > You turn to look at him, one eyebrow raised.
  442. “So… what’re your thoughts about this whole thing?”
  443. > “Honestly? It’s bullshit.”
  444. “I’m glad I’m not the only one feeling it.”
  445. > “I wouldn’t mind backing up a crew with experience here. But he wants us to build a crew practically from scratch for this?”
  446. > Anonymous shakes his head.
  447. > “I’m sorry I got you dragged into this, Spitfire. If it weren’t for what they were holding over both of us, I’d have told them to shove it already.”
  448. “Hey-”
  449. > Stretching a wing out, you touch a few feathers to his shoulder.
  450.  
  451. “-I wouldn’t want to leave you hanging on this either. I do have to ask though - have you had any ideas about where we’re even going to find a crew?”
  452. > He reaches out as well, stretching across the gap between pilot’s and copilot’s seats to put a hand on your side.
  453. > “I do, but I wanted to tell you first. Because I’m going to need you one-hundred percent onboard with it.”
  454. “Why wouldn’t I be?”
  455. > “I’m thinking about adding some ponies to the crew.”
  456. > The line is delivered so flatly, so calmly, that it takes you a moment to process through all of what he’s just said.
  457. “Ponies?!”
  458. > Leaping from the seat, you actually stand on the center console to get closer to him.
  459. > “Easy, Spitfire, watch the throttles-”
  460. “You want to buy - have ponies on this?!”
  461. > “Yeah. I knew this wouldn’t go over well, but please at least hear me out!”
  462. > Of course it wasn’t going to ‘go over well’.
  463. > He’s talking about putting ponies in danger - ponies who wouldn’t have a choice!
  464. > But you will at least hear him out.
  465. > Trying to force down your feathers and coat - both fluffed out as anger had surged - you nod.
  466. > “...okay, one. We can cheat a bit on the training: You taught me about pony talents. About how it lets you know things or figure things out, right? So if we find the pony with the right talent, they’ll - what, like, get a sense of what they need to do, right?”
  467. > There is a point there.
  468. > “Two is - look, Thomas seems on the level. But the other guy, Whitworth? I don’t like him, and I think he’s going to do whatever he can to keep his fingers around our necks - including getting his own people on our crew.”
  469. “How’s that relate to ponies, though?”
  470. > “Whoever they put on the crew, I can’t trust. But a pony - a pony I can trust.”
  471. “Over another person?”
  472. > He looks at you with one raised eyebrow.
  473.  
  474. > “Spits, no offense but - I remember how bad you were at the bottom of your fall. There’s only one thing an enslaved pony wants, and I’m going to offer it to them right off the bat.”
  475. > Freedom…
  476. > Yes, that would work.
  477. > At the same time, you still aren’t sure how you feel about Anonymous -
  478. > Buying.
  479. > Call it what it is.
  480. > Buying ponies.
  481. > Looking past that he technically owned you is one thing.
  482. > Standing by while he purchased others was a whole different business.
  483. > The one time he’d ever treated ponies as ‘business’ had lead to the worst moment you’d ever had with him.
  484. “I’m… not sure I’m okay with this.”
  485. > “You don’t have to give me an answer right now. I didn’t tell you anything I was planning, after all. But if you’re not onboard I want to know, Spits. If you don’t like it, don’t squish that down.”
  486. > He looks back out the front windshield, tapping the yoke with a finger.
  487. > “If we do this, I’m going to need you to help me put together a list. So, again… if this isn’t something you’re onboard for, I’ll tell them-”
  488. "Just promise me two things: One, when the job is done you'll give them their freedom, and two, you’ll do everything you can to bring them back."
  489. > You aren’t certain.
  490. > This feels like a bad idea.
  491. > But you do know for sure that he’s onto something, and so you trust him.
  492. > Especially when he gives your shoulder a squeeze and nods.
  493. > “They’ll be my crew, Spitfire. I always look after my crew. And they’ll be your crew too, honestly, so they’ll have two good heads looking after them.”
  494. "Okay. Can't say I'm dead-on thrilled, but-"
  495. > You give a little shrug of your wings.
  496. "-I trust you. I'll pick a good bunch. Think of it as long-duration rescue operation."
  497. > “Thanks, Spits. Knew I could rely on you.”
  498.  
  499. ------
  500.  
  501. > Thomas puts down the phone with small grumble.
  502. > “...Mr. Whitworth says he’ll agree, but only if we let him choose one too.”
  503.  
  504. “What, like in addition to the ones he’s already putting on-”
  505. > “Yep. A pony too.”
  506. > From the sour look on Thomas’ face he feels about this exactly like you do.
  507. > “Don’t tell me about it. I guess he wants the same thing you do."
  508. > You look to Anonymous, and he looks to you.
  509. > "I won't fly with anyone I don't trust."
  510. "He's paying for this. He won't just force an idiot on us."
  511. > "No. Worse - a toady."
  512. > Fixing him with a steady, flat look, you shake your head.
  513. > This wasn't a battle to be won.
  514. > Even so he looks back at Thomas with a unhappy expression.
  515. > No sympathy is given; Thomas shakes his head.
  516. > "Even if I could take your side, Whitworth would just threaten again to reveal you'd been letting Spitfire fly."
  517. > "Ugh - I guess we don't have a choice."
  518. "Yeah. Tell him we'll agree to it."
  519. > "Tell him you agree, got it."
  520. > Anonymous doesn't wait for the call to go back; he spins around and stalks from the office.
  521. > You understand his anger.
  522. > Threatened, his life upset, a new and untested face put on his crew with so little time to train...
  523. > But it's not something you can allow to fester, so you follow him outside as well.
  524. > The late afternoon had already begun to tinge warmth with feather-brushes of nights cool.
  525. > And the lake!
  526. > You could see why there had been so many houses lining the edges of it - the lake and hills behind it were absolutely magnificent, lit and silhouetted by the late-afternoon sun.
  527. > Anonymous is sitting on the little jetty going out into the lake - sitting on the edge and looking at your plane tied up on its buoy in the distance.
  528. > When you sit down next to him, he grunts out:
  529. > "How far do you figure it is to her, Spitfire? Three, four hundred meters?"
  530. "About."
  531. > "Feels like a mile. Or more."
  532. > After a glance back, you dare to lean against his side.
  533. "It won't be as bad as you think. You started training me in less time. I didn't crash."
  534.  
  535. > "I also didn't let you do everything from the start. And there's going to be more of them."
  536. "We'll have someone from the - the, uh, Coulson company? The ones who owned this place."
  537. > "Yeah, and that's what I'm worried about; I'm going to have to learn too. God, I just want to swim out there, get in the plane, and give them the middle finger through the whole takeoff."
  538. > An amused nicker tells him your answer, and he reaches over to scratch that -
  539. > Ooooooh, yes.
  540. > - that great spot just between your wings.
  541. > "Well, I guess I can't really complain to you about being forced into stuff."
  542. "No, but I'll listen anyway."
  543. > "Attagirl, prettybird. That's why I - hey, hey! No hitting me with the wings, I might fall in."
  544. > You fold them back up again, smirking.
  545. > There, now there was laughter in his voice again.
  546. "You going to come inside? I think they have another trailer for us to stay in."
  547. > "Give me a bit. I'll come along."
  548. "Sure."
  549. > You don't feel quite as bad leaving him behind this time.
  550. > The hill on this side of the lake is maybe even more beautiful, directly illuminated by the setting sun.
  551. > And you half want to-
  552. > Wait.
  553. > A flash of blue, flittering among the trees?
  554. > You're off the ground in an instant, voices calling out in surprise from below.
  555. > Climbing, climbing above the treetops - eyes searching for what you were now certain you'd seen.
  556. > That had been too large to be a bird, and too vibrant to be anything but alive.
  557. > A pony?
  558. > Another pegasus?
  559. > But no matter how much you search and circle, you cannot catch even a glimpse of them again.
  560.  
  561. --------
  562.  
  563. > Getting settled into this...
  564. > What would you call what they have here?
  565. > Encampment?
  566. > Facility?
  567. > Operation?
  568. > Whatever it is, the living is better than you have had in years.
  569. > A real bed in a sleeper trailer and fresh, hot food from any of the nearby episodes?
  570. > Luxury!
  571. > Unfortunately, you don't have long to relish:
  572. > Work begins quickly - yourself and Anonymous spending hours in the cockpit of the Mars, familiarizing yourselves with the controls.
  573. > On the fourth day, three new faces turn up:
  574. > A man and woman, he was broad with lined and wrinkled skin while she was young with hollow eyes that seemed to bore into you.
  575. > Curious as you are about the fierce gaze she was spearing you with, it's he who is the most immediate concern:
  576. > They might be another species, but you can tell when two males are sizing each other up for a dominance competition; if he and Anonymous were pegasi, they would be circling each other with wings spread, tufts fluffed out, and tails lashing.
  577. > There might even have been whinnying.
  578. > As it was, they simply eye each other over for a few moments before extending a hand to shake.
  579. > Tensely.
  580. > You let out a silent breath of relief.
  581. > Male dominance contests could be ugly; you’d never tolerated them among the Wonderbolts.
  582. > Professionalism was mandatory.
  583. “That’s Anonymous, my owner. I’m Spitfire - his co-pilot and navigator. You’re…?”
  584. > “Renaud Laplier. That-”
  585. > He gestures to the woman, who is still spearing you with a fearsome gaze.
  586. > “-is Alicia Millicant. We were pilot and flight engineer respectively for Coulson Tankers; now I guess we’re on this gig with you.”
  587. > Anonymous chuckles.
  588. > “Oh, so you’re the ones Thomas managed to rope into this?”
  589. > “There’s a third - Terry’s somewhere around here; he’s our other flight-engineer-and-navigator.”
  590. > Three of the original crew - out of eight.
  591. > That’s not great, but at least you weren’t going to be going into this totally blind.
  592.  
  593. > You’d made do with far less before.
  594. > Especially in those last final days as Equestria crumbled apart.
  595. > While your thoughts wander, Renaud’s gaze turns down to you.
  596. > “So, a pony who flies a plane, huh? Can’t say I’ve ever heard of that before, but the stuff Thomas sent is pretty clear. He told you what this is all about.”
  597. “More or less, yes.”
  598. > “Think you’re able to deal with it?”
  599. > Is that a challenge or a test?
  600. > Whichever it is, answering to quickly would be foalish - but so would hesitation.
  601. “I’m confident in my skills as a flyer and Anonymous’ as a pilot. But I’ll admit I haven’t tried anything this big before, so I know I’ve got a lot to learn.”
  602. > That’s the answer you’d have hoped for out of any brand-new ‘Bolts; hopefully it plays well enough here too.
  603. > Hope pays off - Renaud gives something that might generously be called a grin; the lines on his face do most of the grinning for him, but it’s still enough.
  604. > “Fair. We don’t have long to teach, so I hope you - and the other ponies - are going to be fast learners. What do you think, Alicia?”
  605. > You hadn’t really been hoping for a ringing endorsement - not with the way she’d been looking at you before.
  606. > But that doesn’t mean you aren’t a little hurt when she just snorts and walks from the room.
  607. > Renaud watches her, a frown passing briefly over his lips.
  608. > “Ah, she’ll be better once she knows you.”
  609. > You doubt that.
  610. > Like most officers, you knew a lie when someone tried to feed you one.
  611. > This was going to be trouble.
  612. “What about the third of you - Terry, you said?”
  613. > “Terry? Aw, no - he’ll love you. He’s the freshest among us; I think he’s the most happy to do this.”
  614. > As if summoned by his name, a young man sticks his head through the doorway.
  615. > “Hey, does anyone else know why Alicia just went running out like she’d eaten a bug and - oooh, hey! You must be Spitfire! Good t’meetcha!”
  616.  
  617. > Your hoof is being shaken even before you can fully register how quickly he’s crossed the room, and it takes some effort to resist the urge to leap back.
  618. “Oh! Uh, hey. Good to meet you… too?”
  619. > “Word is we’re going to be getting a few more ponies to help fill out our crew. Can’t wait to meet them too! You know who any of them are yet?”
  620. “We, uh… we’ve been making some initial selections, Anonymous and I. But we wanted your input before making any certain decisions.”
  621. > “Yeah.”
  622. > Anonymous shakes Terry’s hand too; unlike with Renaud, there’s none of that typical stallion-ish posturing.
  623. > “We’ll have some initial choices ready soon for you to review if you’d like. We didn’t want to make any final decisions on this without you.”
  624. > Terry and Renaud look at each other.
  625. > The latter speaks first.
  626. > “We should probably get Mr. Atmos to see that too, since he’s the boss.”
  627. > “Sure, sure. What about, uh - Alicia, that was her name?”
  628. > This time the pause between them is a leaden one.
  629. > “I… think she’ll be okay with the choices we make.”
  630. > Your eyes narrow and Anonymous raises one eyebrow at Renaud’s lingering tone.
  631. > This dancing around an issue going to be a problem.
  632. > Right now, though, your owner does not pursue it:
  633. > “Alright, then. We’ll run that past you and Atmos soon; we’ve both been going over the lists to see who’s available.”
  634. > You aren’t sure how much of a lie he realizes that is.
  635. > Though you knew how to find the sites on the computer that listed ponies for sale, making yourself actually go to them…
  636. > You find yourself stalling uncontrollably.
  637. > Leaving him to be caught in a lie seemed wrong, though, so you force yourself regardless of how nauseating a task it was.
  638. > It felt like another betrayal.
  639. > Yes, he had sworn to have the ponies freed.
  640. > But even just taking part in this whatsoever left an unfathomably bitter taste in your mouth and piercing ache in your chest.
  641.  
  642. > Because when anyone else scrolled through those profiles, they only saw values.
  643. > Opportunities.
  644. > Costs-and-profits.
  645. > You saw lives.
  646. > Some of the faces were scared, some were angry, some neutral.
  647. > Some looked like they’d been hit with drugs before the pictures were taken.
  648. > And for every pony you chose to be purchased, there were so many more you had to pass up on.
  649. > Ponies who you had to deny the chance at freedom.
  650. > All those emotions you crush down beneath a mask of professionalism.
  651. > You’d broken dreams before, denied ponies a chance at the Wonderbolts and the dreams they’d chased since foalhood.
  652. > Even kicked out a few prospective cadets.
  653. > If you could do that, then you could do this too.
  654. > Hopefully.
  655. > ...huh.
  656. > You must've spaced out a moment; the three men had moved on leaving you behind.
  657. > Turning to head back down the stairway to the lower level, you instead nearly bump into Bell Curve coming up on the same sharply-curving steps.
  658. "Whoops!"
  659. > Rearing back up, you beat your wings twice to leap up out of the way.
  660. > Fortunate that you had head space to do that!
  661. > "Sorry-"
  662. > Bell Curve comes the rest of the way up and heaves his saddle bags to the side.
  663. > Almost immediately he's pulling a bottle from one, drinking deeply.
  664. "...long day?"
  665. > "Yeah, I've been running back and forth for a while. Bringing things up to the, uh -"
  666. > He gestures with a hoof towards the back of the upper deck, where the 'cargo' is locked away.
  667. "Ah. 'Cargo'."
  668. > "Yeah."
  669. > Leaning in, he whispers into your ear:
  670. > "Sorry. Thomas doesn't like us talking about it openly. Not when we're outside."
  671. "S'fine. I wasn't exactly screaming out that I flew for Anonymous, y'know?"
  672. > Settling down on your belly, you extend a wing in offering for Bell Curve to do the same.
  673. > "Sorry, Spitfire. Nothing against you, but I think if I lay down right now I might not get up again."
  674. > Yeah, you can smell that - the hefty, musky scent of a stallion having been given a good working-out.
  675.  
  676. > Yeah, you can smell that - the hefty, musky scent of a stallion having been given a good working-out.
  677. > He does drop to his haunches, though - tucking a bit of his long mane back behind an ear.
  678. "That bad? Does Thomas really push you that hard?
  679. > "Eh..."
  680. > Bell Curve shakes his head, and the mane comes back down again.
  681. > "Not really. Hell - he's the third owner I've had, and he's probably the easiest. No bowing, scraping, or pushing - just lets me do my numbers and is happy."
  682. "Heh. Lucky."
  683. > "Lucky to be up here, honestly. No offence, but we hear some horror stories about what can be like in some of the States."
  684. "Yeah, like you said with the shock collar."
  685. > "Uh-huh. I was in uh - Britain, I think it was, before this. That was a bit more rough."
  686. "Never been there myself."
  687. > "Not the country. Fine place. But, my boss there - he seemed to get the idea it was my fault when the money-numbers didn't line up. He was like that with his human employees too, but he could beat me when he couldn't touch them. It was a bad place. A lot of hollow eyes, human and pony both."
  688. > You lean a touch.
  689. "So... Thomas is pretty relaxed? How'd you get on this team anyway?"
  690. > Maybe - just maybe - you could get an idea of how this was going to go down...
  691. > "Well, it was another branch of the same company. Word went around they needed a pony good with numbers, I, uh... I got someone to put my name in for it, thank Celestia."
  692. "And you went to Thomas."
  693. > "Uh-huh. God, I was terrified at first hearing I was going to the States. But then Thomas... I got in early to this, uh, project, understand? And he didn't just treat me nice. He actually listened to my ideas about it."
  694. "Like, what?"
  695. > "Well, at first we were just thinking about trying to replicate the basic control-"
  696. > Bell Curve hesitates.
  697. > No!
  698.  
  699. > So close to getting something!
  700. > But the stallion gives an apologetic nicker and shakes his head.
  701. > "...sorry, Spitfire. Nothing against you, but - I really don't know what I can say."
  702. "S'fine. Besides, I bet you don't want to get in trouble with Thomas. Or get him in trouble."
  703. > "Yeah."
  704. > Cracking a half smile, Bell Curve pushes himself up onto all fours again.
  705. > "Can say that again. I owe him a lot, Spitfire. Just like you owe your human."
  706.  
  707. --------
  708.  
  709. > Anonymous sits down at the table opposite you, pushes the remnants of both your breakfasts to the side, and motions to the papers nestled in a small pile beside your spot.
  710. > “Those your choices?”
  711. > You wipe away a last bit of grease and slide them over.
  712. “Yeah. I’ve… picked a couple of possibilities.”
  713. > “ ‘kay. I”ve got a couple to lay out myself, but you start. We’ll go back and forth.”
  714. "So, here's our first."
  715. > You slide the first print-out over; Anonymous stares at the displayed image for several long moments before looking up with one raised eyebrow.
  716. > "...Spitfire, what exactly am I looking at here?"
  717. "Batpony. Thestral. Nocturne. Chiroptequus. They go by a few different names. Best known for forming the core of Princess Luna's personal guard - which, oh, coincidentally, this one was."
  718. > "You know her?"
  719. "No, but I know what a soldier's history looks like. Kalendae served. Might've been still serving when she was caught."
  720. > "Profile says she's 'aggressively violent, repeatedly attempts escape, hostile to all attempts at conditioning'."
  721. "My report says something similar. Or said, when you came and pulled me out of that cage. I know how a soldier thinks, Anonymous. I can talk to her. Plus, she’s disciplined, familiar with Equestria, and - the report says - ‘tolerant of working near aircraft’. That’s three points in her favor.”
  722. > "Fine..."
  723. > Running a hand through his hair, Anonymous grimaces.
  724. > "...but if she goes Dracula on me, I'm throwing her out of the plane. Midair. Over the ocean."
  725. > You shudder despite knowing he is joking.
  726. > Death by exhaustion over the ocean was no joke - one of the few things you truly feared.
  727. "She won't. For one, they don't drink blood. And for two, I think if she comes after anypony it’ll be me.”
  728. > “You?”
  729. “You’re just a slaver. I’m the traitor. Who’s next?”
  730. > Thankfully he takes the topic-change in stride.
  731.  
  732. > “If that first pony was in the military, we might have trouble keeping her off this next one too.”
  733. > The paper slid to your side of the table shows a far-older griffon - his coat beginning to gray places.
  734. > Signs of time spent soldiering are in evidence here too; one eye is covered by a dark eyepatch, while his feline hindquarters are clearly scarred.
  735. “Gerard Hildesfattir.... I think I know this griffon!”
  736. > “You what?”
  737. “By reputation, anyway: He was a Claw-leader - that'd be a captain under our system. A good strategist and officer... and not fond of ponies.”
  738. > “Fuck. Should’ve figured there was a catch. Unfortunately, he's the company's choice. Whitworth’s, I mean."
  739. > Your stomach falls.
  740. “You’re kidding. They’re forcing that on us?”
  741. > “Will he be picking fights?”
  742. “I doubt it. He's smart enough not to do that, but they'll want him watching our every move for anything out of line - and who better than a griffon?"
  743. > "Can you deal with him?"
  744. "I can. If anypony else tries something, I'll deal with them too."
  745. > The finality with which you say that draws a raised eyebrow from Anonymous.
  746. > After a moment, though, he nods.
  747. > "Next?"
  748. > You draw a deep breath.
  749. > At least this one wouldn’t be as difficult a sell as Kalendae had...
  750. “Renaud. Whether or not Whitworth is going to try and force us, I want him on the plane. He’s experienced, used to the plane, and we’d be idiots not to.”
  751. > “Agreed. So why do you sound like you’re trying to convince me?”
  752. “Because there’s just one issue:”
  753. > Standing up, you put both forehooves on the table.
  754. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but you two get into bristling matches every time you see him. Seriously. If you were stallions I’d have told you two to take it outside and have a good fight just to get it out of your systems. Go fence with your stallionhoods, or whatever.”
  755. > “It’s....”
  756. > He rubs his face a little grumbling.
  757.  
  758. > “...we’re both normally captains of our own ship, so to speak. And now we’re being asked to work together, I’m on his territory but we’re going to be flying in my area of experience… yeah, we probably are jumping at each other a bit.”
  759. “I get that. But you know what? He’s also a long-timer. Knows that plane better than either of us do. So, are you going to go fight him or what?”
  760. > “Did ponies actually do that?”
  761. “What, fight over stuff?”
  762. > “No, the dick-fencing thing.”
  763. “Fuck no. But I would let them get bit of sparring off if that’s what it took.”
  764. > When you give a little nod, Anonymous chuckles.
  765. > “Damn. I never knew.”
  766. “Not a real fight, just a little sparring. But yeah.”
  767. > “Well, I’m just going to have to go tell him outright. Make it clear we’ve got to stop if we’re working together.”
  768. “Good. Your turn.”
  769. > Another sheet is slid your way for review.
  770. “Mistral, huh? I don’t know about this one, Anonymous… there’s a lot of bad hints here.”
  771. > “Like?”
  772. “Okay, here. ‘Right here, there’s a comment appended - ‘attentive and eager to learn’. But right down the next, she ‘avoids all responsibility and duty’. And the pattern keeps repeating.”
  773. > “Isn’t that less bad then what it said about - who was it, Kalendae? She was outright hostile to authority.”
  774. “Normally I’d agree. But it keeps happening with new owners… Mistral’s issue is that she isn’t reliable. Kalendae I can convince, and a pony doesn’t get into the Royal Guard while being unreliable. But Mistral works when she wants to.”
  775. > “Okay… that’s a no, then. But you’re not going to like my next choice any better.”
  776. > Your eyes narrow.
  777. “Oh yeah? Not another griffon, is it?”
  778. > “No but not much better. I’d like Alicia on the crew, for the same reasons you wanted Renaud.”
  779. > Groaning, you sink back onto your haunches.
  780. > Yep, he was right.
  781. > You’re not liking that choice any better.
  782.  
  783. “I don’t know what her issue is with me, Anonymous.”
  784. > “Neither do I. But just like what you said about Renaud: She knows this better than we do, and we can’t afford to be tossing away relationships.”
  785. > Groaning, you extend a wing to to rub the back of your head.
  786. > “Just - try to talk to her, okay?”
  787. “Fine… I’m guessing you’re going to want Terry in on this too?”
  788. > “Unless you have a problem…?”
  789. > You actually manage a grin this time.
  790. “Nah. I’m good. He’s good too. Who’s your last? We still need another navigator.”
  791. > Anonymous rubs his head awkwardly.
  792. > “I don’t actually have one… Mistral was my best.”
  793. “Oh. Well, fortunately I do.”
  794. > With one hoof you scoot the sheet over; Anonymous knits his eyebrows as he examines it.
  795. > “Cloud Patch… sounds like a pegasus, but he’s an earth pony?”
  796. “It happens sometimes. A weather specialist without wings - can’t move a cloud, but can tell you anything and everything about the land and the weather.”
  797. > Leaning back over the table, you tap the relevant lines with a hoof.
  798. “See? Read here and here.”
  799. > “Yeah, I get what you’re talking about… then that’s eight. Two full crews. We’ve got our team.”
  800. > He steps from the table with the remnants of breakfast;
  801. > You start to follow him, but as you do one of the profile-pictures catches you eye:
  802. > Anonymous’ copy of Mistral’s profile page; he must have held the complete copy back.
  803. > Her picture - a white-coated pegasus, mane and tail of sky blue and vibrantly yellow eyes - stares.
  804. > The impact slams into your gut with the force of a hurricane, leaving you wobbling in place.
  805. > That wasn’t just an image, a profile.
  806. > She was a pony
  807. > A pegasus mare just like you.
  808. > And you had just denied her the chance to join this team.
  809. > To eventually win her freedom.
  810. > Where would she go now?
  811.  
  812. > A pony with that kind of history - obedient one moment, hostile the next - might avoid the worst labor camps, but not forever.
  813. > Would she have done better if you had taken her in?
  814. > Related to another pony, rather than a human owner?
  815. > Your mouth opens to call for Anonymous, but he is already at your side - arms circling around you and concern in his voice.
  816. > “Fuck! What’s wrong, Spitfire? It looked like you were just about to fall right over!”
  817. “I - just -”
  818. > There’s bile in your throat; you have to swallow it before continuing.
  819. “Don’t know why it just hit me now. Selecting - choosing - ponies to come with us, and… denying them. It just - got to me.”
  820. > Words aren’t coming easily; you’re disjointed at best.
  821. “I’m sorry, I just can’t-”
  822. > “Shh. Hey. C’mere.”
  823. > He was sitting down himself on the floor, back to a cabinet, so that you could lean against him.”
  824. > That is sorely needed, and you just stay there a while as proper sentences form in your mind.
  825. > Hands stroking down the back of your neck is helping.
  826. > A lot.
  827. “Choosing ponies to accept or reject - I’ve done that before. But choosing them to be get their freedom or be tossed back into the system feels…”
  828. > “Like you’re turning on them?”
  829. “Abandoning. Like I’m abandoning them.”
  830. > He doesn’t say anything more.
  831. > Might not even have anything more to say.
  832. > But he does stay there, until you manage to get yourself upright.
  833. “I’m better now.”
  834. > “Liar.”
  835. > You grimace.
  836. > He was good at reading you these days.
  837. “Okay. I’m not good. But I’m not going to keel over again.”
  838. > “You sure?”
  839. > No.
  840. "Swear to me, Anonymous. Swear that they'll - they'll actually go free when this is all done. Abandoning one - I can... can deal. Losing them all-"
  841. > "Shhh. Shhh. Hey. I already swore, Spitfire. Once the purchase goes through, they'll be owned by me. Not Thomas, not Whitworth, nobody else. And I will free them. You know I will."
  842.  
  843. > His hand is in your mane, and normally that would be a pleasant feeling.
  844. > Not this time.
  845. > You shrug away, spinning around on a hoof to face him with a whinny and ears pinned back.
  846. > Letting him see your narrowed eyes and the definitely-not-tears dampening them.
  847. "And what if they decide to alter the deal? Then what?"
  848. > "Then we tell them to fuck off, that wasn't the agreement and they don't get to pull that kind of bullshit."
  849. > Anonymous is - allowed to rest a hand on your withers.
  850. > After a moment, you extend a wing out to hang over the arm.
  851. > "You're not my slave, Spits. Remember that. You're my partner, and when I promise you something then it gets fucking done."
  852. "...Y-Yeah."
  853. > Head hanging, your ears flop down.
  854. "I don't know. I'm just... this whole thing, it's eating at me."
  855. > "Yeah, I can tell. That's why I'm saying, let it be my problem to deal with."
  856. > Somehow he is able to reel you in until you're resting against him again.
  857. > Celestia above, if anyone catches you like this...!
  858. > "You shouldn't need to worry about it. You trust me, and I tell you it's going to happen."
  859. " 'fraid it's not that easy, Anonymous. Sorry."
  860. > "Heh. You don't have to say sorry. I'm the one who came up with this dumb plan."
  861. "It's not dumb. It's just... this is harder than I thought it would be."
  862. > "I gotcha. You okay now?"
  863. "No. But I'm good enough."
  864. > Still, he releases you; fluttering your wings a little you make your way out of the trailer that had become your temporary home and back into the thick of things.
  865. > The side of the aircraft was open; you followed two workers lugging mattresses for the bunks in.
  866. > More storage and equipment had already been brought inside, and your hooves don’t tap-tap quite as hard and headed straight for the cockpit.
  867. > At least one of the seats is already occupied; Renaud has already settled in and appears to be working through the computers that run the aircraft.
  868.  
  869. > As he finishes, you catch him stroking the control wheel with an almost affectionate touch.
  870. > Now that was a familiar action.
  871. > Anonymous had something familiar many times to-
  872. > “Waiting for something, Miss Spitfire?”
  873. > You manage to avoid jumping in place.
  874. “...just looking to see what I can learn first.”
  875. > “Well, come on and have a seat. I don’t have a copilot right now, so that’s open.”
  876. > You do, sliding into the seat and resting a hoof on the copilot’s side control yoke.
  877. > “I’m guessing when you fly, that has to be changed out for something better.”
  878. “We bolted additions to the one on our plane. I think they’ll have to do the same on this one.”
  879. > “Huh.”
  880. > Again he touches the pilot’s side wheel with that almost familial touch, and you crack a little grin.
  881. “You’re fond of this plane, aren’t you?”
  882. > “I’ve been working on it for quite a few years now. Flying fire-fighting jobs with Coulson…”
  883. > That, you remember, was the company that had owned the plane before this.
  884. > You let your ears flop down and head tilt to the side.
  885. “I hope you aren’t angry about all this…?”
  886. > “What, it getting sold? I knew it was coming. They’d been trying for years.”
  887. “Oh…”
  888. > “I don’t blame them, not really.”
  889. “But it still hurts. Having something like that taken out of your control.”
  890. > He looks at you with a raised eyebrow, and you give a little shrug of your wings.
  891. “I know something about being sold against your will.”
  892. > “...yeah, I guess you do.”
  893. > He regards you with a new eye, and you cock your head slightly.
  894. “You know you’re still coming along, right? I made sure Anonymous understood that.”
  895. > “Yeah, I do.”
  896. > You can still hear the discontent in his voice, though, and your lips draw down into a frown.
  897. “...and I told him to sort it out between the two of you and make it clear he’s not stealing something that belongs to you.”
  898.  
  899. > Loud laughter erupts from Renaud as he bangs one arm of the pilot’s seat in amusement.
  900. > “Was it really that obvious?”
  901. “Look, I have a lot of experience marshalling competing egos. I also told him if the alternate option was fighting you for dominance, he should do that too - whatever it takes to settle this.”
  902. > “I’ll pass on that idea, thanks.”
  903. “Good, I’d prefer not to have him beaten silly.”
  904. > This draws another round of laughter from Renaud; he lifts a wrinkled hand to rub his equally-wrinkled forehead.
  905. > “I’ll bet. Besides, word is the fat-cat running this thing didn’t give you two much of a choice.”
  906. > You raise one eyebrow.
  907. “...Thomas tell you that?”
  908. > “Yep. He’s young, a little eager about all this… a good guy. But yeah, he mentioned it.”
  909. > Rising from his seat with a groan, Renaud turns for the stairs down to the exit.
  910. > “Okay, okay. I’ll go settle things with Anonymous. Thanks for the chat, Spitfire.”
  911. “Welcome!”
  912. > As he’s heading downstairs, one last question suddenly jumps to mind.
  913. “Hey - real fast - we wanted all three of you to come with us, honestly. And I’m glad you and Anonymous are going to settle things, but do you know what Alicia’s deal with me is?”
  914. > Renaud must have heard you.
  915. > He even paused for a second, the break in his regular footsteps being caught by your sensitive ears.
  916. > But not for a moment does he stop walking down those stairs.
  917. > You ponder following him - a good captain doesn’t let issues fester and linger.
  918. > But there will be time to sort this out and you don’t think being a nag is the proper course now just yet.
  919.  
  920. --------
  921.  
  922. > “You ready for this, Spits?”
  923. “No, but let’s not put it off any longer.”
  924. > Nodding, Anonymous nudges the door open and steps into Thomas’ little mobile office.
  925. > Two ponies are already present; Cloud Patch, whose mottled coat of varying greys immediately makes you think of a stormy sky, cocks his head as you step in.
  926. > The other, however, is little more than a ball of purplish-grey coat and silver-streaked lavender mane or tail, through which the occasional glimpse of velveteen wing can be spotted.
  927. > Oh and plus, she’s in a cage.
  928. > Great.
  929. “Can someone get her out of that, please?”
  930. > All attempt at keeping anger from your voice has flown right out the window.
  931. > Across the room, Thomas raises a hand.
  932. > “We tried. But she’s, uh… she keeps snarling at anyone who gets close, and she’s got teeth… big ones.”
  933. > Oh.
  934. > Yeah.
  935. > ‘Aggressively violent’ indeed.
  936. > Stepping up to the bars, you lower your head as close to her as you can and speak softly.
  937. “Hey there, Kalendae.”
  938. > Tufted ears perk up, swiveling to face you.
  939. > “Apteros skýles! Now what do you want?”
  940. > Her voice is surprisingly soft, with the rich tones that suggests an older mare and a hint of some vaguely foreign accent.
  941. > It is also filled with utter bitterness and visceral anger.
  942. “For starters, stop hiding your head in your tail and look at me.”
  943. > “Unless you intend to torment me until I comply, I suggest you not waste your breath, slaver.”
  944. > Well, if she isn’t even going to figure out she’s talking to another pony...
  945. > Very well then.
  946. > Drawing yourself up, you suck in a deep breath-
  947. “ON YOUR HOOVES, GUARDSPONY!”
  948. > Every officer needs a good yelling voice, and long years of disuse hasn’t degraded yours too far.
  949. > She doesn’t jump to her hooves the way you had hoped for - that reaction mostly belongs to everyone else in the room.
  950. > But orange, slitted pupils tentatively appear from beneath the ragged edge of an overgrown mane.
  951.  
  952. > The eyes that bore them, narrowed in suspicion at first but quickly opening wide as they fall on you.
  953. > “Captain Spitfire?”
  954. “No ‘captain’ now, but yes.”
  955. > Leaning back in, you offer the exact same question Anonymous had first asked you through a cage door all those months ago:
  956. “How’d you like to go flying, Kalendae?”
  957. > Just like you had then, Kalendae can’t help but twitch at the thought of freedom.
  958. > Something rattling as she lifts her head; had they chained her inside the cage?!
  959. > “I would like this very much.”
  960. > She bares her teeth as she speaks, and your ear rotates as Anonymous takes an impulsive step back.
  961. > “But - there is a catch?”
  962. “If you call it that. For right now… if we let you out, you keep your head on straight like you were trained to.”
  963. > “They tried to touch me.”
  964. > The words are spat.
  965. > But you’re pretty sure there’s more to her current state then that.
  966. “They won’t.”
  967. > Confidence of voice is a good trait for any officer, and you’ve still got that magic touch.
  968. > Kalendae’s eyes sweep around the room, temporarily pausing on Logic Gate and Bell Curve.
  969. > She stands, though, revealing the chain running from her collar - like your own, a heavy-duty shock collar with enough punch to knock a pony spinning - to an eyebolt in the cage’s floor.
  970. “Ugh. Okay, who’s got the keys?”
  971. > “Here!”
  972. > Thomas tosses the keys to you, seeming all too happy to have someone else doing the freeing; you neatly catch them in your mouth and quickly set about freeing Kalendae.
  973. > The second she is free of the cage both wings snap out with a soft ‘Fwump’, leathery expanses stretching and extending to their full reach.
  974. > You crack a small grin.
  975. “Heh. I think I did something similar the first time I got out of the cage they’d been keeping me in.”
  976. > “You too? They-”
  977. > Another spat word.
  978. > “-seem intent on putting the best of us in cages to waste away.”
  979. “...right.”
  980.  
  981. > Shooting a quick glance around, you take stock of the situation.
  982. > Cloud Patch is curiously peering out from behind the legs of one of the staff - Sai, you remembered - and unabashedly ogling the thestral’s wings.
  983. > His collar was far less worrisome - a simple cloth thing.
  984. > No troublemaker there; you could afford to leave him in place.
  985. > There’s no sign of the resident griffon, however.
  986. “Where’s - the third one?”
  987. > Mentioning what Gerard is might not be the best idea right now.
  988. > “Whitworth has him in his office.”
  989. > Uh.
  990. > Great.
  991. > Probably setting him up to keep an eye on you.
  992. “Kalendae, why don’t we go outside and talk a bit. I bet you’re damn ready to get a bit of fresh air for a change.”
  993. > “I am.”
  994. > Her neutral tone is accompanied by her eyes flicking, searching suspicious for a catch.
  995. > Not surprising - you had expected the same the first time Anonymous had let you out free.
  996. > Rather than try and convince her, you turn for the door.
  997. > Your ears turn back to catch the sound of Kalendae’s hooves following close behind, and you allow yourself a little smile.
  998. > Yep, she’s bought it.
  999. > Now time to reel her in.
  1000. > Snapping your wings up, you kick up off the ground and immediately climb for higher altitudes - far above the rooftops, far up enough that you could see the homes and roads stretch out away from the site.
  1001. > Kalendae’s wingbeats are close behind you, but you can tell she’s having trouble keeping up.
  1002. > Not surprising.
  1003. > You were a Wonderbolt, and she had been locked in a cage for far, far too long.
  1004. > Still, she isn’t complaining.
  1005. > If anything, she seems to be relishing in the sense of finally being aloft again - trying her hardest to keep up with you through twisting and turning maneuvers.
  1006. > You keep that up for a minute more, then tuck your wings and dive hard:
  1007. > Touching down on a rooftop and waiting for Kalendae to do the same.
  1008. “Enjoy that?”
  1009.  
  1010. > “To stretch my wings again? To finally get away from their hateful presence? Yes!”
  1011. > Sweat is beginning to froth on her coat, but shakes her overly-long mane from her eyes and meets your own with an easy grin.
  1012. > Despite her breath coming somewhat harder, her voice still retained its rich, lilting tones.
  1013. > “I would like to repeat this again, once the night has come. To think the chance to fly is something I once took for granted!”
  1014. “It’s nice. I remember what it was like when they got me out of my cage.”
  1015. > Now out in the open sunlight, though, you could see more than a few hints that she had not had the easiest time either:
  1016. > Kalendae’s coat is a littered criss-cross of furrowed scars and white patches where something had chafed and rubbed until a sore had developed; some looked old and faded enough to have come from her time serving in the Night Guard.
  1017. > Most did not, and her expression darkens at the mention of her predicament.
  1018. > “How long had you been...?”
  1019. “A few months. I couldn’t count properly, but I’m fairly sure it was a few months at least.”
  1020. > Ripples run through Kalendae’s coat as she shudders.
  1021. > “I think I’d have gone insane being trapped like that.”
  1022. “You look like you’ve been through a lot yourself.”
  1023. > Her answer is a small nod.
  1024. > “They tried - other means with me.”
  1025. > She extends her wing again, and at first you don’t understand what she is suggesting.
  1026. > Then you catch the glint of metal:
  1027. > Three rings circling the leading edge of her wings, pierced through the membrane to enclose the muscle and bone.
  1028. > “My wings healed around them, but when linked with chains these kept me from spreading them ever. Even I was not mad enough - in anger or insanity - to stretch my wings and tear the flesh.”
  1029. > Oaths fall sputtered from your lips.
  1030. “We’ll - find someone who can take them out, so the holes can close up. Get you better before-”
  1031.  
  1032. > “I can tolerate these, so long as you do not chain them again. Besides, they did far worse to me that left only scars within, not without.”
  1033. > You swear furiously again - an indulgence you would not allow yourself in front of a recruit or grunt, but feel not so restrained with another officer.
  1034. > Kalendae merely nods.
  1035. > “I said much the same once. Those wounds I have - learned to bury. But they have much to answer for. So many lives destroyed - so much pain given.”
  1036. “I know, yes.”
  1037. > “And you, Spitfire…”
  1038. > She turns to look at you, eyes roving along your body.
  1039. > Noting, no doubt, the remarkable lack of scars like those found on her own.
  1040. > “...you’re not going to let me run, are you?”
  1041. “What?”
  1042. > “I was thinking about it before. When we were back in the room and you let me out. I thought your collar meant you were fighting them as much as I, but then they just let you take me out, so-”
  1043. > Bright orange pupils spear you with their gaze as she gets to her hooves, accent growing thicker as her temper builds.
  1044. > “- my collar could take me down in a second. But they just let you take me way up into the air without any question. I could have just flown away. So… if not the collar or the cage, you must be the one who would have stopped me.”
  1045. > Kalendae hadn’t been checking you for scars; she’d been sizing you up for a fight.
  1046. > Urgh.
  1047. > You were hoping to have this conversation on your own terms.
  1048. > But she was a soldier, and you’d forgotten how soldiers think.
  1049. > How they strategize.
  1050. > You get to your own hooves, facing her head on.
  1051. > If this came to blows, you reckoned the odds were in your favor.
  1052. > Barely.
  1053. > She had been wasting away in a cage while you were fit, but the Night Guard had a well-deserved reputation for fighting ruthlessly to overcome any weakness.
  1054. “I’d rather not be chasing you down, Kalendae. Or fighting you.”
  1055. > “But if I did run, you would have to be the one following me.”
  1056.  
  1057. “Yes. I probably would, unless they’ve made the range on these tartarus-damned collars longer.”
  1058. > Kalendae wrinkles her nose, lips drawing back to expose her teeth.
  1059. > “Why are you doing this for them, Spitfire?”
  1060. “For Anonymous - you haven’t met him yet - because I trust him, respect him, and don’t want to leave him hanging. And because he feels the same way about me.”
  1061. > “Respect, for a slaver?”
  1062. > She turns and starts to pace; you join the circling, but her wings are held close to her sides still.
  1063. > No aggression display - she’s smarter than to signal her intentions like that.
  1064. “Respect, for a friend. We had our rough spots, but we came to an agreement. So I’m asking you, this once, do this for us. Then-”
  1065. > Her teeth bare again as she whinnies sharply.
  1066. > “For ‘us’? The only ‘us’ there is, is us ponies.”
  1067. “Maybe once, but not anymore. He saved my life - twice - and I saved his. You know the kind of bonds that facing death together builds.”
  1068. > Come on, just circle a little bit more-
  1069. > There!
  1070. > Your pacing has brought the sun now fully at your back, and Kalendae has to stop and turn her head aside to shield her sensitive eyes.
  1071. > She isn’t the only one who can strategize!
  1072. “He lets me fly the plane as his equal partner, even if that isn’t legal under their laws. He still lets me, because he trusts me. Now the ones running this whole thing are threatening him over it, and I’ll be thunder-struck before I let him take a hit over treating me like a partner.”
  1073. > Between the sun and your words, Kalendae is forced to pause.
  1074. > You can see her thinking it over in her head - tufted ears flicking and tail lashing.
  1075. > Time to drop your secret weapon.
  1076. “It’s not just us, either. Everypony else they brought in, they’re caught up in this too.”
  1077. > “Including the other pegasus back there.”
  1078.  
  1079. “And two more ponies working for them, yes. And - if you want to talk about the only ‘us’ being ‘us ponies’? Then I don’t ever remember a time when the Guard would not put themselves on the line for a subject of Equestria.”
  1080. > Kalendae looks away again, webbed wings shuffling.
  1081. > You allow yourself a little smile - victory!
  1082. > “You’ve caught me in a bind, Captain. I flee, and ponies suffer for my selfishness. If I stay, I help the slavers…”
  1083. > Even as she gives a soft hiss of anger, her words still stay soft and quiet.
  1084. > Imperturbed and unmarked by her emotions.
  1085. “I’m sorry. We were ‘caught’ first; it was either bring more ponies into this, or lose to begin with.”
  1086. > “Once contact has been made with the enemy, one must commit to their course of action. Yes, I understand. And if I - we - do work?”
  1087. “Freedom, when the job is done. For all of you. Talk to Anonymous; he’ll tell you.”
  1088. > Not every bit of good news could come from you.
  1089. > They had to start trusting him at some point too.
  1090. > Hissing through her teeth again, Kalendae shakes her head.
  1091. > “I will not bow, scrape, or let the word ‘master’ cross my tongue in their presence. But if it will win freedom…”
  1092. > As long as you’re having this discussion now…
  1093. > You say ‘fuck it’ and throw caution to the wind.
  1094. “It’s going to be harder than you know. We’re going to Equestria.”
  1095. > Her head snaps back, wings snapping out and eyes dropping to needle-thin slits.
  1096. > “You are mocking me.”
  1097. > Rather than argue, you just give her a flat look.
  1098. > “We could flee together! Take the other ponies and go! They could never reach us-”
  1099. “Do you know how to leap from an airplane in flight and not be slammed back against it by the downdraft? While carrying another pony? And not to mention, there might be another enforcer. Someone trusted by the same ones who roped Anonymous and I into this.”
  1100. > “Someone? Not somepony?”
  1101. > Silent curses leap from your tongue.
  1102.  
  1103. > Careful, Spitfire, careful!
  1104. > Don’t celebrate too quickly; letting words run away from you like that would cost you.
  1105. “Yes, someone. They’ll be looking out to make sure none of us are lucky enough to run away.”
  1106. > Another lash of that long, blue tail and a low, feral growl emerges from her throat.
  1107. > “It seems they have us caught by the neck now, Captain.”
  1108. “That does seem to be the way the wind is blowing, yes. Caught us with a perfect ambush.”
  1109. > “I see.”
  1110. > Kalendae looks back at you with an amused expression.
  1111. > “Then if I am to bear this may I make one request of you, Captain?”
  1112. “Of course… if you stop calling me ‘Captain’. It doesn’t feel right to bear that title now. Not since I lost my team.”
  1113. > “Very well then, Spitfire. If I am to bear this, may I at least have my mane cut?”
  1114. > Now it is your turn to grin.
  1115. “After you go talk to Anonymous, find out . They’ve got bunks for all of us set up already, so there’s got to be something in there.”
  1116. > “To feel clean and groomed again will only reduce this humiliation by a tail-hair’s width, but that shall be welcome even so.”
  1117. > Well.
  1118. > It could have gone better, but then it could have gone a lot, lot worse.
  1119. > Now you have to figure out what you’re going to do about that griffon…
  1120.  
  1121. --------
  1122.  
  1123. > Gerard still isn’t anywhere to be seen - which is probably for the best, as it gives you a moment to plan.
  1124. > Where would you be able to intercept him?
  1125. > Well, everyone needs to eat no matter what, so it’s a fair bet he’ll have to poke his head out for dinner sooner or later.
  1126. > Taking to wing again, you settle into a slow circle around what you’d come to consider the ‘boss building’ - it was where Gregory Whitworth spent most of his time.
  1127. > Presumably Gerard was in there as well.
  1128. > Your patience is not wasted:
  1129. > Soon enough the door opens and a distinctive form emerges through it - quickly taking to wing as well.
  1130. > Hurricane’s feathertips, he’s big!
  1131. > Okay, you aren’t the largest of ponies but still.
  1132. > That griffon has got to be at least two hundred pounds; you’re almost glad he’s taken some hits already.
  1133. > Rolling hard, you close your wings and trade altitude for speed.
  1134. > When they pop open again, you’re catching up to Gerard - but not before he, too, rolls hard and vanishes down into the treetops.
  1135. > Damn!
  1136. > In a second you’re following, eyes closed as branches whip around you.
  1137. > The second they are clear, your wings flare and beat to catch the air and bring you to a rough but not bone-jarring touchdown on the earthy ground.
  1138. > ...just in time to see bits of something small, grey, and recently-alive vanishing into his beak.
  1139. > Urgh.
  1140. > “The prey here doesn’t know griffons enough to flee. They do not even give me a decent chase, let alone a fight!”
  1141. > You aren’t sure whether you’re insulted or thankful Gerard hasn’t turned to face you, considering what he is doing.
  1142. “My heart weeps for the loss of your entertainment.”
  1143. > His head rolls back as he gives one of those peculiar, throaty cackles griffons make.
  1144. > “Your heart would. You, at least, I think would understand the thrill of the race - of chasing, and to be chased.”
  1145.  
  1146. > The last of what you’re reasonably certain was a squirrel it swallowed, and he turns to face you even as his tongue darts out to lick his beak clean.
  1147. > Of course the first thing that leaps out at you is the missing eye:
  1148. > Absent a patch now, you can fully see the empty, red socket staring out in place of another sharp, golden eye.
  1149. > In the open sunlight, however, more becomes apparent:
  1150. > First, Gerard was older than you’d thought.
  1151. > Feathers burst from his head in a crest that almost seemed to mimic a crown, but their luster was faded and dull as was the tawny fur around his hindquarters.
  1152. > Similarly, when he walked it was not with the sly and dexterous steps of a younger griffon - though how much of that was brought by age and bulk, and how much was the fault of the many scars which littered his hindquarters, you aren’t certain.
  1153. > Those two points together leave you feeling somewhat more confident - enough that you can drop to your haunches and stare him down.
  1154. “Okay, Gerard. If you’re going to try and intimidate me, let’s get it over with now.”
  1155. > “I have no need to ‘try’ intimidating you.”
  1156. > Having finished licking off the sides of his beak, Gerard lowers himself into a frankly spine-bending curl for a creature of his size.
  1157. “Look I know what you’re here for-”
  1158. > “The same thing you are, I imagine.”
  1159. > That avian head turns, its sole remaining eye examining you from different directions.
  1160. > “We both benefit from our loyalty to our owners - and we are both here to carry out our duty to our owners to make sure we keep that.”
  1161. “I think you misunderstand. I respect Anonymous; I choose to stand by him.”
  1162. > “Do you? You ponies always were prey - smart prey, with lots of fight. But still prey, deep down.”
  1163. > You snort gently.
  1164. “Spare me the philosophy. In the end you’re still property. You-”
  1165. > “I respect Mister Whitworth.”
  1166. > His beak droops open in what you’ve come to recognize as a griffonic smile.
  1167.  
  1168. > “He is a hunter, much like myself. A pursuer, rather than pursued. He is my superior, but I respect him. Oh, did you not know I have been his for a long time?”
  1169. > Damn, you hadn’t meant to let that show through.
  1170. > Gerard’s ‘smile’ widens.
  1171. > “I can assure you, I will be no more easy to tempt myself from him than to tempt you from your Anonymous.”
  1172. “Fine then.”
  1173. > You stand up again, half-spreading your wings.
  1174. “Let me make my point: Whatever issue you have with me, I’ll deal with it. But we decided to bring on a bunch more ponies now too, which means they’re my responsibility.”
  1175. > “Ensuring you are following through with Mister Whitworth’s wishes is my responsibility.”
  1176. “That’s fine. But if I find out you’re giving any of the ponies trouble, then you’re going to be dealing with me again too. You want to see this done, then let me - let us - work. Anything more, you’re plucking out your own wings.”
  1177. > “Of course; we griffons always were respectful of the - hierarchy of things. Knowing ones’ proper place in them.”
  1178. “Yeah, yeah. Just keep it in mind - your place right now, is helping us. Not being an obstructive idiot to satisfy your grudges.”
  1179. > “Naturally.”
  1180. > You turn to leave -
  1181. > And roll hard to your side, falling on your wing against the forest floor as Gerard hurls himself airborne.
  1182. > Some tiniest whisper of arcane sense warning you of the moving air as his coiled-spring muscles propel him like a ballista bolt.
  1183. > Classic bait-and-roll, better in the air but just as good on the ground.
  1184. > He’d come down on the spot you just vacated, claws angled to rake along your back and seize your wings in one bone-snapping gesture-
  1185. > Instead Gerard soars far overhead, beating his wings to climb above the treetops as his laughter echoes in your ears.
  1186. > You get up, face, burning, and try to shake the dirt from your coat and feathers.
  1187.  
  1188. > Not just enough to make you follow him all the way out here, he had to humiliate you too!
  1189. > Anonymous looks up when you slam the door to your trailer open.
  1190. > “...I’d expected you’d have been a little happier that everyone’s shown up.”
  1191. “Had a bad encounter with our resident vulture.”
  1192. > Grumbling, you flop over onto your back and stare up at the ceiling.
  1193. > Imagining the open sky beyond it - free of any nuisances like obstructive griffons.
  1194. > And then Anonymous is sitting down beside you, folding his legs together and arms across his chest.
  1195. > “Want to talk about it at all?”
  1196. “Not much to say. That vulture’s going to be trouble, Anonymous. That’s all there is to it.”
  1197. > “Hmm. On my end, I followed your advice - had a chat with Renaud earlier. I think we’re cool now.”
  1198. “Huh, lucky you.”
  1199. > The message seems to have gotten across; he watches you a moment longer before abandoning his efforts and standing.
  1200. > “Alright, I’ll leave you be. But you’re going to have to be talking to ‘that vulture’ in a bit, because we’re going to give them the briefing on the whole plan.”
  1201. > Rutting great.
  1202. > Rain always follows the storm-clouds…
  1203. > As if to reinforce your point, not seconds after Anonymous leaves a screech of absolute fury resonates through the trailer from the next space up.
  1204. “Oh, for fuck’s sake now what?!”
  1205. > You burst through the door to find something of a standoff underway.
  1206. > Kalendae is hunkered down on a bunk, wings raised to protectively shelter herself.
  1207. > Anonymous sits on the other, a bottle of shampoo clutched in one hand.
  1208. > Judging from the scattered debris on the floor around him, though - a water bottle, a pillow, several books - she had been hurling things at Anonymous.
  1209. > Both are frozen, heads twisted to look at you with goggle-eyed stares.
  1210. "So, I'm really sure I just walked in on something here, but I don't know what..."
  1211. > "Well, I just said Kalendae kind of needs a shower and a haircut-"
  1212.  
  1213. > "I have been locked in a cage and not allowed to bathe-"
  1214. > "-asked if she wanted a little help getting cleaned or trimmed-"
  1215. > Kalendae draws her lips back in a snarl, making sure Anonymous can see the sharp points of her teeth.
  1216. > "Lay a finger on me, and I shall bite it off! Tha eíste a evnouchisméni skýlos!"
  1217. > "-thought you said she doesn't bite, Spitfire?!"
  1218. "Well, don't touch her and then I won't be a liar."
  1219. > Anonymous throws up his hands, lobbing the shampoo bottle to the foot of the bed.
  1220. > "Fine. You deal with her. Fuck me, trying to do her a favor..."
  1221. > You'll deal with him later.
  1222. > For now...
  1223. > The bunk creaks as you hop up onto it, moving to Kalendae's side nudging her wing down until she folds it down.
  1224. > Then you wait a little longer for her blood to cool too.
  1225. > For her eyes to narrow down from the almost-spheres to their typical slits.
  1226. "What happened, Kalendae?"
  1227. > "He-"
  1228. > She chokes, swallows, tries again.
  1229. > "My Captain, he - spoke words about my need of a bath. As if I desire this! And then he had the daring to suggest that he 'join me' - I know what those words mean with them!"
  1230. > Even as she protests, though, you can hear the waver in her voice.
  1231. > The worry.
  1232. "And then?"
  1233. > "He raised his voice. Made to force me into this. I - refused him."
  1234. > After a moment the worry is given to words too:
  1235. > "Have I acted wrongly, my Captain?"
  1236. > You sigh.
  1237. "...yes, and no. It's at least as much his fault; he's been around me so long he's forgotten what that can sound like to a pony that's been-"
  1238. > Forced.
  1239. > "Then - he did not mean to..."
  1240. "Rape you? No, he definitely did not."
  1241. > Kalendae looks away, nostrils flaring in a soft huff.
  1242. > "I have made a fool of myself.”
  1243. “Maybe. Maybe not. But, do you want to wash up first? Maybe I could be there with you instead?”
  1244. > “This would be welcome, yes.”
  1245. > The showers in the trailers were nothing fancy, more compact even than the typical hotel ones you found yourself using.
  1246.  
  1247. > Standing side-to-side, there was barely room for yourself and Kalendae - much less proper room to spread your wings for a real wash!
  1248. “How do you like the water?”
  1249. > “Hot. It has been so long I cannot even remember a heated bath!”
  1250. > You preference was cold after a good workout, but hot was just as good.
  1251. > Obligingly you kick the water up to its steamiest and climb in with her.
  1252. > SIghing gently, Kalendae slumps down under the stream and allows her eyes to slip closed.
  1253. > You give a gentle nicker before stepping in with her - one she returns.
  1254. > “You would spoil me with this luxury, I think…”
  1255. “Enjoy it while you can. Where we’re going, we’re going to all be lucky if we can really wash up at all.”
  1256. > “Ah, just like older days on duty.”
  1257. “Pretty much.”
  1258. > The shampoo isn’t the best, but you still begin to rub it into her mane.
  1259. > Beneath the overgrown hair, you can still feel rigid cords of muscle - and, here and there, the rough path of a scar.
  1260. “We should probably get your mane trimmed back, before we go.
  1261. > “Agreed. I liked it a little bit longer, but this is too much.”
  1262. > Giving her a full groom-down takes less than you’d imagined - while they hadn’t groomed her, they must have giving Kalendae a wash-down at some point.
  1263. > Yet, you can still feel her shuddering with delight as the soap runs free of her coat.
  1264. > And so even when the last ounce of dirt has been washed free you stay there - grabbing a brush and lightly starting to groom her.
  1265. “I, uh, don’t know what to do with your wings… but, anything else. I mean, that I can help you with?”
  1266. > “Do not be embarrassed.”
  1267. > Half-extending one leathery fan, Kalendae rubs her nose through the down-like fuzz covering the webbing stretched between each of its bony ribs.
  1268. > “Few pegasi do, and you have no reason to. I shall have to give these a good cleaning, but what you have already done is welcome.”
  1269. “Good!”
  1270.  
  1271. > Standing side-to-side, there was barely room for yourself and Kalendae - much less proper room to spread your wings for a real wash!
  1272. “How do you like the water?”
  1273. > “Hot. It has been so long I cannot even remember a heated bath!”
  1274. > You preference was cold after a good workout, but hot was just as good.
  1275. > Obligingly you kick the water up to its steamiest and climb in with her.
  1276. > SIghing gently, Kalendae slumps down under the stream and allows her eyes to slip closed.
  1277. > You give a gentle nicker before stepping in with her - one she returns.
  1278. > “You would spoil me with this luxury, I think…”
  1279. “Enjoy it while you can. Where we’re going, we’re going to all be lucky if we can really wash up at all.”
  1280. > “Ah, just like older days on duty.”
  1281. “Pretty much.”
  1282. > The shampoo isn’t the best, but you still begin to rub it into her mane.
  1283. > Beneath the overgrown hair, you can still feel rigid cords of muscle - and, here and there, the rough path of a scar.
  1284. “We should probably get your mane trimmed back, before we go.
  1285. > “Agreed. I liked it a little bit longer, but this is too much.”
  1286. > Giving her a full groom-down takes less than you’d imagined - while they hadn’t groomed her, they must have giving Kalendae a wash-down at some point.
  1287. > Yet, you can still feel her shuddering with delight as the soap runs free of her coat.
  1288. > And so even when the last ounce of dirt has been washed free you stay there - grabbing a brush and lightly starting to groom her.
  1289. “I, uh, don’t know what to do with your wings… but, anything else. I mean, that I can help you with?”
  1290. > “Do not be embarrassed.”
  1291. > Half-extending one leathery fan, Kalendae rubs her nose through the down-like fuzz covering the webbing stretched between each of its bony ribs.
  1292. > “Few pegasi do, and you have no reason to. I shall have to give these a good cleaning, but what you have already done is welcome.”
  1293. “Good!”
  1294.  
  1295. > You deliver her one last nuzzling, then step out of the shower to dry off.
  1296. > By the time Kalendae is dry, you’ve got the hair-trimmer in your mouth and waiting to go.
  1297. > She gives it one look and sighs.
  1298. > “It will be, I suppose, no worse than that which I received on induction to the Guard…”
  1299. “Just tell me if I’m taking too much.”
  1300. > She doesn’t complain, even as you run the buzzing tool up along her neck - severed strands of purple and grey hair tumbling to the floor.
  1301. > Though she does flinch when you pass the cutter around her tufted ears.
  1302. > Spitting out the tool, you tilt your head.
  1303. “Too much?”
  1304. > “No, I… I miss the touch of a simple shearer.”
  1305. > The way she says it, it sounds like some terrible admission of guilt.
  1306. > “These tools, they always feel - cold. Hard. Rough tools to cut as much as possible. Typical human work.”
  1307. “...oh. Well, it’s all we’ve really got here. I don’t think we have a mouth-shears.”
  1308. > “Not a fault of yours, My Captain.”
  1309. > When you move to go on, however, she fires another question at you:
  1310. > “Why do you do this, My Captain?”
  1311. “Huh?”
  1312. > “Washing me. Giving me a mane-cut. Why? This is not something the Wonderbolts did to their recruits, no?”
  1313. “...because I want to do right for you, Kalendae. You’ve been through - we’ve all been through a lot, but I really do think the key to surviving this is to support each other.”
  1314. > “You… wish to welcome me?”
  1315. “Close enough, I guess.”
  1316. > “I see.”
  1317. > But though she calms down, you never get the sense she really relaxes again.
  1318.  
  1319. --------
  1320.  
  1321. > That afternoon finds everyone packed into Thomas’ office - four humans, three ponies, and one griffon plus Thomas lounging in the corner.
  1322. > Not a word has been spoken, and yet you can already feel the tension in the room:
  1323. > Kalendae and Gerard are pointedly ignoring each other, Alicia watches you with cold eyes.
  1324. > At least Terry and Cloud Patch seem to be getting along well; you can see Cloud with one extended wing and Terry examining it with an open-mouthed expression of fascination.
  1325. > “Okay, everyone, listen up!”
  1326. > Anonymous raps the table twice and conversation dies off; he waits for silence before continuing.
  1327. > “Let’s all get down to business here: Our job is to perform a series of survey flights over Equestria. Thomas can tell you a bit more about that, and you can see our intended flight path here-”
  1328. > He taps the map stretched across the room’s central table.
  1329. > “-a bit later on. My job is to turn most of you into a crew that can fly everyone in and out safely. You’re going to learn a lot, and learn fast. Renaud, Alicia, and Terry are all experienced with the plane we’ll be using - big damn thing, I’m sure you’ve all seen it. I’m experienced with water landings as well, and Spitfire-”
  1330. > A gesture to you.
  1331. > “-is my second-in-command. She’s smart, capable, and has pulled my ass out of trouble a few times. Pay attention when she talks.”
  1332. > Wait-
  1333. > He just nodded to you.
  1334. > Are you supposed to speak?
  1335. > Now?
  1336. > You didn’t prepare anything!
  1337. > But
  1338. “...okay, look.”
  1339. > Is there a chair?
  1340. > Yes, a chair to stand on.
  1341. > No shame in that - you need to see everyone!
  1342.  
  1343. “Look - I’m not going to mince words. We don’t all like each other. We’re not all friends here. But for this job, we need to be co-workers. We need to be a team. Because this isn’t going to be easy, and if we screw up it can cost lives. Trust me on that. And for some of us, it’s not just what we’ve got to lose. It’s what we’ve got to win, because if we get through this we get something bigger than a paycheck. We get our freedom back. We get our lives.”
  1344. > One wing extends out to tap Anonymous’ side.
  1345. “I know we can be a team, because I’ve been through it before. This collar-”
  1346. > You roll your head back, showing it for the rest of them to see.
  1347. “-means that I’m his property. But that he treated me like a person - like an equal? That’s what means I follow his orders. We pull through the tough spots because we are a team. Same deal with all of you: We might not become best friends , but we can sure be a team.”
  1348. > Looking around the room again, you hope or maybe even pray to Celestia that there’s some sign of more agreement among them.
  1349. > That hope is lost.
  1350. > Kalendae and Gerard are still playing the ignoring game with each other; Alicia sniffs softly in your direction.
  1351. > Well.
  1352. > They’d only just met, right?
  1353. > Maybe in time.
  1354. “Okay. We’re splitting into two crews of four. During flight operations, we’ll be trading off flight duty shifts with each other keeping each other fresh and rested. First team: Anonymous and myself as pilot and copilot. Gerard, you’re our navigator; and Terry-”
  1355. > Your eyes track to the pegasus stallion, who was now sitting comfortably beneath Terry’s arm.
  1356. > No, better to keep them together.
  1357. > At least some were understanding.
  1358. “-and Alicia, flight engineer. Second team, Renaud as pilot, Kalendae copilot, Cloud Patch as navigator, and Terry as flight engineer.”
  1359. > Gerard stirs, finally twisting his head towards you.
  1360. > “Not copilot? I can already grip the wheel-”
  1361.  
  1362. “You’re also missing an eye. Reading maps, that’s not too bad. Flying, it’s going to mess with your vision.”
  1363. > It feels like a flimsy excuse, but Gerard accepts it.
  1364. > Or rather, just gives a small grunt and doesn’t question you again.
  1365. “Starting today, we’re going to get started training. You’ll live together in the trailers. Eat together. Each of you have some experienced crew on your team; it’s their job to help you learn your jobs. Once we’re getting off the ground reliably, those of us with wings are going to also practice exiting and entering the plane in flight.”
  1366. > You give one final look around, praying for some kind of a positive reaction.
  1367. “I know we’re not best friends now. But once we get up there - we’re going to be relying on each other.
  1368. > Does this sound stupid?
  1369. > It sounds stupid to you.
  1370. > Celestia above, where did your skill with words go?
  1371. “...check the posted schedules, and get any manuals you need from your team leaders. Tonight you get to know your crew-mates a bit, tomorrow we start. That’s all.”
  1372. > There is clapping - one set of hands, Thomas in the back.
  1373. > No hooves.
  1374. > And he soon gives up too.
  1375. > Fucking great.
  1376. > You hop off the chair and join the small procession filing out of the room.
  1377. > Previous nights had seen you order out for dinner in one of the nearby towns, or ordering delivery.
  1378. > This evening Whitworth had agreed to provide some light catering as the group came together, but the company at the meal is so cold and distant that the gesture feels wasted.
  1379. > Get to know your crewmates, you’d said.
  1380. > Thomas and his bunch knew each other already, and were all too happily chatting with themselves.
  1381. > Renaud, Terry, and Cloud Patch seemed to be getting along well enough, even Kalendae joining in with a word here and there as she nibbled at her food.
  1382. > But you?
  1383. > Anonymous you already knew.
  1384.  
  1385. > Alicia seemed to be projecting an intensely cold wall of dispassionate ignoring at you in favor of talking with him.
  1386. > And Gerard you can’t be bothered to verbally spar with again so soon.
  1387. > You feel…
  1388. > Alone.
  1389. > Eventually you can take no more; pushing away your half-eaten plate, you rise and slip from the table to head outside.
  1390. > The night was still young, but the sun had already set.
  1391. > Only cold pools of green-tinged light shining down from lamps illuminated the little complex of buildings.
  1392. > Here and there a last few workers were turning in for the evening, laughing among themselves.
  1393. > They ignored you, and you saw no ponies among them.
  1394. > Alone.
  1395. > “Not having a good day?”
  1396. > Okay, not alone.
  1397. > You look to the side, where Logic Gate stands a few feet away with her head tilted cautiously.
  1398. “Yeah.”
  1399. > Though you consider channeling all your best ‘don’t bother me’ impressions.
  1400. > But no - she wasn’t responsible.
  1401. > Logic Gate was probably trying to help.
  1402. > So instead you nicker gently, a gesture which she returns as she comes to stand at your side.
  1403. “Let me tell you, it’s not as easy as the stories tell it. Especially what we’re being asked to do.”
  1404. > “How do you mean?”
  1405. “It’s one thing to manage a team when everypony wants to be there - that I could do. But trying to get everyone together now…?”
  1406. > “I can’t even guess.”
  1407. > You start to pace slowly, but Logic Gate sticks by your side.
  1408. > “Thomas bought Bell Curve before me. I was only really brought in at the end of his planning, when he was building the - machine.”
  1409. “Yeah. This - magic-surveyor we’re lugging around, or whatever it is.”
  1410. > There’s a twitch in the mare’s face - a flick of her ear and slight drawing back of her lips.
  1411. > She wants to say something, to interject, but doesn’t.
  1412. > Something about the machine?
  1413.  
  1414. > “Yes, that. The point is, they had a thing going already, and I was the last one in. They didn’t ask before they bought me either, for that matter.”
  1415. “But you didn’t exactly hate it either.”
  1416. > “I didn’t dislike it.”
  1417. > Your pacing had brought you out from among the buildings and to the slipway both planes rested on.
  1418. > The lights closest to them had been shut off, work for the day done.
  1419. > Absent that illumination, they took on a kind of half-seen exaggeration - like primal leviathans looming out of the night, simultaneously bulbous and littered with hard, angular protrusions.
  1420. > Nothing like the graceful curves of an Equestrian airship.
  1421. > Soon enough you would be climbing into those with thirteen others.
  1422. > Going home.
  1423. > “He really went to bat for you, you know. Thomas did.”
  1424. “Went to bat?”
  1425. > Logic Gate flicks an ear in annoyance; the artificial light had turned her into a half-seen specter as well - cobalt-blue mane standing out against her coat.
  1426. > “Sorry. Human saying. He really stood up for giving you the room to make the decisions you wanted. Whitworth - his boss - wanted to just hire more crew and force you and Anonymous to go along with it.”
  1427. “Huh.”
  1428. > You cock your head, tail flicking.
  1429. “Why’d he get so fixated on it?”
  1430. > “He-“
  1431. > She looks around, ears spinning back and forth to verify that there aren’t any others in listening distance.
  1432. > You do the same; you never know when there might be an errant griffon lurking on some rooftop…
  1433. > “Thomas… sympathizes with ponies. He really feels for us. I think he wanted you to put as many ponies as you could on the crew so they could earn their freedom.”
  1434. “I sympathize with everypony, but it still wouldn’t have been my first choice to put them in harm’s way.”
  1435. > “No, you don’t get it. He’s an abolitionist. Wants to see the end of all of this. I think - I think he sees ponies working together like this as the first step.”
  1436. > Ah…
  1437.  
  1438. > Your feathers prickle; tail snapping back and forth once.
  1439. > An ally like that - would you be so lucky?
  1440. “If he’s an abolitionist, why did he drag us into this?”
  1441. > “He didn’t. That was Whitworth’s idea. I think he saw how well we were working with Thomas’ employees, and he got the idea it might be possible to get you into this as well…”
  1442. > She grimaces, falling back on her haunches and tucking her tail around herself.
  1443. > “If it means anything coming from me, you have my apologies. But I don’t think Thomas is wrong to try and do this either. Anything that gets us closer to freedom…”
  1444. “Is that one of the reasons you ended up getting along with him, and the others?”
  1445. > “It was, yes.”
  1446. > Logic Gate smiles - a fond, warm smile.
  1447. > Though the lamps’ pale light was dim at this distance, you could see her eyes focusing in the distance.
  1448. > “You know how good it feels to be treated like a real, thinking being again. But to be with someone who knows how wrong it is what’s happening to you…!”
  1449. > Anonymous had never really acknowledged that, you have to admit.
  1450. > Certainly he’d accepted your disgust, your hatred at being enslaved, but never really affirmed that himself.
  1451. > You sigh softly, eyes roving up to stare at what few stars are visible in the light-choked sky above.
  1452. > “I’ll… leave you alone now, I guess.”
  1453. “Not your fault. I know. Just not in a really talkative mood right now.”
  1454. > Logic Gate seems to hesitate for a second - then leans in and delivers a brief, uncertain nuzzle to your cheek.
  1455. > Your eyes half-close and she nickers softly before turning away.
  1456. > So.
  1457. > You don’t know exactly how to feel about this, but - but maybe you could still try.
  1458. > Right?
  1459. > Being alone feels good, but there’s only so long you can afford it.
  1460.  
  1461. > Slipping back amid the buildings, you come to a halt just in view of planning building - people and ponies now drifting out in ones and twos, highlighted by the illuminated door for just a second before they move on.
  1462. > Hopefully your target hadn’t left yet -
  1463. > No, there!
  1464. > Alicia’s outline is distinct enough you can tell it is her even before the walks out and beneath a pale-green cone of light.
  1465. > You don’t approach until she’s gone a bit further.
  1466. “Alicia!”
  1467. > She stops, turns, and annoyance - or maybe even something deeper - hardens her features.
  1468. > “What do you want?”
  1469. > Ears flopped down, you approach.
  1470. “Look, I… I honestly don’t know what I did to make you angry at me. I don’t know if it’s something about the plane, or the plan, or what, but - please. I’m asking for the sake of this job and everyone on it: What can I do to fix this? At least so you can work with me. Give me that much.”
  1471. > Her gaze suggests that your question may as well have come from a creature with two heads.
  1472. > The sheer awe and shock that you would even ask seems totally out of line with your request, but there it is.
  1473. > “You - you ask what you can do to ‘fix’ me?”
  1474. > Indignation:
  1475. > Her voice is filled with it, enough to make your ears pin the rest of the way back and tail clamp down.
  1476. “No, I want to fix - us. Because at this point we have to do something to get this job done-”
  1477. > “I don’t ‘have to’ do anything. I signed a work contract so now I’m stuck here, but I’m not making kisses at any pony. Fuck you, Equestrian.”
  1478. > The words come like a blow to you.
  1479. “I don’t want anyone to be kicked out-”
  1480. > “Now you’re threatening me? Of course you would.”
  1481. > No, you weren’t!
  1482. > Okay, maybe you were.
  1483. > She was a lot less critical to this than you were.
  1484. > Alicia snorts softly, turning away.
  1485. > “I’ll work with you to get this done. But you’re not going to be my ‘friend’, Equestrian. Fuck off.”
  1486.  
  1487.  
  1488. > You stay there a long time after she is gone, a leaden weight in your belly seeming to pin you there.
  1489. > When she doesn’t return, you manage to force yourself upright.
  1490. > No more than two steps are taken before you decide that the trailer isn’t where you want to be tonight.
  1491. > Fortunately your own plane is still moored out on the lake, and it’s less than a minute of flight across the shimmering water before you alight atop the hull.
  1492. > The interior is still and silent, somehow seeming more devoid of life than it had ever seemed before.
  1493. > Quiet is just what you wanted now, though.
  1494. > The hatches and doors can be locked, sealing out the outside world.
  1495. > In Equestria, all that had needed to happen was for you to close your office door and nothing short of an invasion would get it open until you were ready.
  1496. > The sanctity of the captain’s office was absolute.
  1497. > Here…
  1498. > You’re glad there are locks.
  1499. > Climbing into the bed, you draw a sheet up over you.
  1500. > It’s thin, in need of a wash, and the mattress is far harder than the cushy things they had in the trailer.
  1501. > Everything smells of old paint and metal.
  1502. > And yet, it feels more homey than anything else.
  1503. > You’re almost asleep when the rising noise of a small boat engine cuts in.
  1504. > Ah, well.
  1505. > You were hoping to be left alone until morning, but evidently that wasn’t in the stars tonight.
  1506. > Anonymous’ boots are heavy on the metal flooring and your ears lay back as he approaches.
  1507. > “Hey, Spits.”
  1508. > You give no response, not because you expect him to go away but because you have nothing to say.
  1509. > The bed creaks as he sits down on the edge, his body eclipsing the moonlight coming in through the windows.
  1510. > Wanted or not, your wings give a little twitch when his hand settles atop the covers.
  1511. > “C’mon, Spits. Talk to me.”
  1512. “I don’t know if I can do this.”
  1513. > Your voice is a soft, low tone - maybe even a whisper.
  1514.  
  1515. “Everything I try, turns around and hits me instead. Kalendae’s barely under control, but only because she knows the rest of us are basically being held hostage. Alicia still hates my guts for some reason and won’t even say why, and Gerard’s laughing behind my back as he gets the better of me.”
  1516. > “And you think that’s your fault?”
  1517. “No, but… it doesn’t feel like things are going to work. This isn’t like when we pulled Thatch and those foals out. Nopony wants to be here. This is-”
  1518. > What was that human saying?
  1519. “-herding cats. This is herding cats, and sooner or later someone’s going to get clawed.”
  1520. > “We knew it wasn’t going to be easy, Spitfire. C’mon, you’re telling me you never had to deal with some idiot, thickheaded, pride-filled rookie or something before?”
  1521. > A hint of a smile passes over your lips.
  1522. “If you asked the captain at the time, I was the idiot, thickheaded, pride-filled rookie. But yes. I did.”
  1523. > One in particular, near the end - her brash, rainbow mane matched only by the brashness of her attitude.
  1524. > “So why is this eating at you so bad now?”
  1525. > Huffing softly, you roll over to face the other direction.
  1526. “I don’t know. Maybe I did lose something more than muscles all those months in a cage. Maybe ‘giving in’ really has softened me.”
  1527. > “Or maybe you’re expecting too much of yourself. You used to be captain, but you said it yourself: This is different.”
  1528. “Yeah. If it goes bad, someone could die.”
  1529. > “Not what I meant, Spits.”
  1530. > The roll of his eyes is audible in his very tone, and you sigh.
  1531. “I know, I know. But what do we do?”
  1532. > “Lead by example. Or at least, that’s what I’m going to do because I’m a shit leader otherwise and it’s what I know how to do.”
  1533. > You try to laugh, although it ultimately comes out as a kind of nickering snort.
  1534. > Not because it was a bad idea but simply because of the way he put it.
  1535. “Yeah, I guess that’s about it.”
  1536.  
  1537. > “And remember, too: You’re not captain anymore, and that means things don’t depend on you alone. You have other people backing you up. Myself, Renaud… don’t let it all rest on your shoulders.”
  1538. “Heh. Thanks. I guess I needed to hear that too… hey, Anonymous? Mind if I stay out here tonight? I could still use to get away from it all.”
  1539. > “Not a problem, Spits.”
  1540. > Sinking back down beneath the covers, you stretch languidly and feel some tension flee your body.
  1541. > Well, this would be-
  1542. > You pop up again the bed on the opposite side squeaks as well.
  1543. > Anonymous is partway through unlacing one shoe when he catches your stare.
  1544. > “...what? I wasn’t just going to leave you out here alone.”
  1545. > This time, the smile that appears on your face is both deeper and more honest.
  1546. > Him, at least, you could rely on.
  1547. > Curling back up beneath the sheet, you let your eyes sink shut.
  1548. “Y’know… I wasn’t alone back then either. Sometimes it really felt like it, but there were a few other senior ‘bolts I could always rely on too. I guess that’s why it feels so lonely now: I’ve just got you.”
  1549. > “Give the others some time. They’ll open up, I think.”
  1550. > You sure hope so.
  1551. > Otherwise, this could become a real pain.
  1552.  
  1553. --------
  1554.  
  1555. > “Aaaaaaugh!”
  1556. > Your ears pick as Anonymous snaps the manual shut and leaps up from his chair.
  1557. > “Fucksake, I’m done. I can’t read anymore of this without my whole brain turning to mush and dribbling out of my ears.”
  1558. “I wouldn’t worry too much; there’s not much to dribble out.”
  1559. > Anonymous fixes you with a fierce glare.
  1560. > “Better me than you. I’m pretty sure the only thing that’s up there is clouds and feathers for you.
  1561. > The glare you fix him with back is just as brutal - and soon melts to laughter from both of you as you pull yourself up and stretch hard.
  1562. > Wingtips trembling as they brush the Mars’ cabin walls.
  1563. > Across the room, Gerard and Renaud look up with equal bemusement at your banter.
  1564. “Nah, I hear you. This stuff is dry as the desert. What time is it?”
  1565. > “Uh, late. Five.”
  1566. > Right on cue, your stomach grumbles fiercely.
  1567. “Dinner?”
  1568. > “Iunno. You wanna hit up Port Alberni?”
  1569. “Sounds good to me. No offense, Renaud, but the food here is kind of terrible.”
  1570. > “None taken.”
  1571. > The huge man’s chair squeaks as his bulk is relieved from it.
  1572. > “I might even go with you. Gerard?”
  1573. > Please say no, please say no-
  1574. > “Tonight I will hunt a bit more, I think.”
  1575. > Yes!
  1576. > “No problem, Gerard. Just stay off the roads and out of peoples’ lots. Wouldn’t be good if you got caught or anything. I’ll go see if any of the others want to come along.”
  1577. > In the end, Michelle, Sai, and Logic Gate opt to join you.
  1578. > You toss on your flight jacket - now somewhat worn from use but still welcoming in its familiar weight.
  1579. > Port Alberni is some twenty minutes away.
  1580. > Problem:
  1581. > Anonymous did not own a car.
  1582. > The typical solution was Uber, an invention for which you have to admit some thankfulness.
  1583. > Out this far, there wasn’t much in the way of ubers.
  1584. > Instead you all pile into one of the vans owned by the company.
  1585.  
  1586. > An older machine - ‘Coulson Flying Tankers’ still etched into the side in fading lettering - but still reliable enough.
  1587. > Barely have you started down the road when the old familiar discussion starts again:
  1588. > “So, I think I’m going to go that Greek place again-”
  1589. > From the front, Renaud waves a hand dismissively.
  1590. > “You always go to ‘that Greek place’, Logic! You’d think you were born there?”
  1591. > “Like you’re any better, Mister Poutine.”
  1592. > Michelle’s comment yields a rough of laughter all around, even from Renaud himself.
  1593. > “Fine, fine. So we will vote on it.”
  1594. > “No, because every time we ‘vote on it’, Sai and the ponies form a voting block and get us into that same place over and over…”
  1595. > You tune the voices out, resting your head on the windowsill as the car bumped along.
  1596. > Closely-wooded forest roads had transitioned to a modest highway, but even so the land felt vaguely wild.
  1597. > Almost familiar.
  1598. > If you’d thought to ask it, you could have flown over the treetops instead of sitting in the car.
  1599. > Wouldn’t have been the first time.
  1600. > Sometimes you just needed a few minutes away - a little time for yourself.
  1601. > No office door to close here, no idle clouds you could vanish into.
  1602. > Not even one of those quiet, hole-in-a-cloud taverns right on the edges of Cloudsdale, the kind of place that always had that musty, stale-thunderhead smell that suggested nobody had bothered airing the alcohol out of the water vapor that made the place up.
  1603. > And where nopony had bothered you because they were all there for the same reason and not even a Wonderbolt could convince them to break that code.
  1604. > Yeah, that had been-
  1605. > “Hey, Spits?”
  1606. > Anonymous is shaking your shoulder.
  1607. “Ehwhat?”
  1608. > “Was asking whether you had any ideas where you wanted to eat. We’ve decided we’re putting them into Michelle’s hat and drawing to choose.”
  1609. “Actually…”
  1610.  
  1611. > Maybe you still could find a bit of a getaway.
  1612. “...if you don’t mind, could just give me like, a twenty and I’ll find my own place? I think I need to stretch my wings a bit, and don’t want to hold you all back.”
  1613. > It’s a lie.
  1614. > They know it’s a lie.
  1615. > That Anonymous just nods and reaches for his wallet says more with greater honesty than you could apparently muster.
  1616. > “Sure thing, Spits. Just get back by eight and don’t stuff your face too much, ‘kay?”
  1617. “Sure. Besides, if I’m late you can always just go. I can make my own way back.”
  1618. > Stars didn’t change, after all.
  1619. > “Yeah, I guess so. I’d better give you thirty, too - remember that money’s worth less here.”
  1620. > “Hey!”
  1621. > Renaud calls up from the driver’s seat.
  1622. > “Our money is perfectly fine. Yours is the weird one!”
  1623. > You’re pleasantly surprised to discover a smile creeping across your face.
  1624. > If that kind of banter could lift your mood, then everything might not yet be lost.
  1625. > “Yeah, yeah. Oh, and here’s your ID card too. Remember, Port Alberni isn’t a leash-law town, but you’ll still need that proof.”
  1626. > Right.
  1627. > Evidence that you weren’t just a runaway slave bumming around with stolen money.
  1628. > How ironic that your identification card had more of Anonymous’ information on it than your own.
  1629. > They didn’t even bother with your birthplace!
  1630. “Just let me out on the edge of town, I’ll find my way in.”
  1631. > “You sure, Spitfire?”
  1632. > Anonymous’ hand is on your shoulder, his eyes worried.
  1633. > He wants you to come.
  1634. > And some part of you wants to come with too.
  1635. “Yeah. I’ll be sure.”
  1636. > But more wants some time on your own.
  1637. > Watching the car pull away from the curb, you’re met by a rising certainty that this was the right call.
  1638. > Lifting a wing, you jam your nose into the pocket of your jacket to ensure the money was still there.
  1639. > Yep - five, ten, twenty…
  1640. > ...huh, he’d given you fifty in the end.
  1641.  
  1642. > Even when you were splitting off, he still was that thoughtful.
  1643. > So it’s with a little smile that you leap from the ground and off into the late-spring evening, relishing the last rays of sunlight creeping over the horizon.
  1644. > The sky has turned a rich, red color - almost matching your mane - and your eyes drift up to watch it almost as much as they are focused down to watch the storefronts going by.
  1645. > After the fifth restaurant blurs by with barely a glance at its menu, you realize that you aren’t even really thinking about food.
  1646. > On the next block is a fish place.
  1647. > Eh, good as any.
  1648. > There were fish in the lake, but between the planes and boats landing in it you weren’t sure you felt safe eating them.
  1649. > The interior is... well, fancier than you had been expecting.
  1650. > Some kind of cracked-wall, oily-floored, hole-in-the-wall had been what you were expecting, but instead ceiling fans quietly turn in a softly-lit, wood-paneled interior that almost leaves you feeling a little homesick.
  1651. > It also leaves you feeling remarkably out of place; already the staff are starting to eye you curiously - what is a lone pony doing wandering into this kind of place?
  1652. > Figures.
  1653. > Out of the bare few restaurants in this tiny city that hadn’t been tried out yet, you picked the one that left you feeling totally out-of-place.
  1654. > Well, rut ‘em.
  1655. > You want dinner, and you’ve got money.
  1656. > Nosing around in your jacket pocket, you pull out the wallet that held your ID cards and the money Anonymous had given you.
  1657. > Fortunately no questions are asked when you order up - though, given that you ordered for take-out, you suspect there’s a good chance they think you’re just off doing errands for your owner.
  1658. > Halfway out the door, set the bag down, pop open the plastic box, and take a long, slow, bite of cod.
  1659. > ...hey, that’s actually pretty good!
  1660. > And yep -  there’s the bugged-out eyes at watching you chow down on fish.
  1661.  
  1662. > Heh, they’d probably never met a real fishing-pony before.
  1663. > Not even all pegasi liked the taste of fish, let alone the other tribes.
  1664. > But just seeing that made the (not-too-small) cost even more worth it.
  1665. “Thanks for the dinner!”
  1666. > And then you’re flapping away again, into the darkening night.
  1667. > One of the nearby buildings has a nicely-heated roof, maybe a bakery or something beneath it.
  1668. > There you settle down, spreading out your dinner and downing it while watching the lake in the distance.
  1669. > Rippling waves turned the city’s lights into a dancing field of stars.
  1670. > A ship blows its horn solemnly as it navigates out towards the sea - threading its way between the shores and rafts logs corralled in the inlet, awaiting processing.
  1671. > What did that ship’s crew think of going out on journeys, you wonder.
  1672. > Did its captain worry about keeping the crew together?
  1673. > Or for them, was it just a few days’ work before they all got to go home and back to their families again?
  1674. > Ugh.
  1675. > Your mind was going back to work issues again.
  1676. > Just what you were trying to get away from instead.
  1677. > Pushing those thoughts out of the way, you finish the last of the fish and potatoes that had come with them..
  1678. > Then you’re on wing again:
  1679. > Weaving above rooftops, dive-bombing the bag of trash into a streetcorner can (still got that old touch!), and turning north back towards the city center.
  1680. > With the sun now set, the jacket was actually a little welcome for warmth.
  1681. > Maybe you could find a bar, or a club or something.
  1682. > Anonymous had taken you to them plenty of times before; he wouldn’t mind you getting yourself a drink.
  1683. > But what was there…?
  1684. > Without access to his phone, you’re forced to resort to doing a street-by-street sweep.
  1685. > Your ears twitch as you pass over one particular club.
  1686. > ‘The Argyle Showroom’?
  1687. > Sounds decent, and the beat coming from within suggests the music is going to be hard and loud enough to take your mind off of things.
  1688.  
  1689. > Sounds decent, and the beat coming from within suggests the music is going to be hard and loud enough to take your mind off of things.
  1690. > You touch down with a flick of your tail and find that the door is guarded by a bouncer - a man who seems to have traded out his entire neck for extra jowls and limbs like tree-trunks.
  1691. > Eh, not the first one you’ve run into.
  1692. > ...not the first one who’d stepped in front of you when you went for the door either.
  1693. > “Whaddaya want?”
  1694. “To go in. Is that a problem?”
  1695. > Fortunately there’s a small, circular table you can rear up onto and talk to him at more-or-less an even height.
  1696. > “Don’t kid me. You tryin’ to fuck with us, pony?”
  1697. “...no. I’d like to go in. Trust me, I’m not going to drink that much.”
  1698. > “No, I’m just thinking ‘why does a’ - y’know what? Whatever. You cause any trouble, though, you’re out.”
  1699. > Fine by you.
  1700. > Trouble wasn’t exactly on your list of things you wanted right now!
  1701. > Were drunk ponies really that much of … a …
  1702. > What.
  1703. > You stumble to a halt, dimly feeling glad that there was no chance your hooves could be heard over the music.
  1704. “Uh…”
  1705. > The interior is decorate gaudily - stages trimmed in golden flashing are illuminated by thin, twisty light bulbs of varying colors.
  1706. > Lights shine through the ceiling, casting pools of light onto the stages and at random points of the floor.
  1707. > But most importantly...
  1708. > Early on in your captivity, you’d discovered humans didn’t much like going unclothed most of the time.
  1709. > But here, there’s…
  1710. > Well.
  1711. > It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that this place is different.
  1712. > Dancers wearing anything between ‘excitingly little’ and ‘nothing at all’ gyrate on poles atop those stages, around which guests with rapt attention.
  1713. > Even as you watch, one loses what little strips of cloth are covering her torso to the cheers of the watchers.
  1714. > Well, roadapples.
  1715.  
  1716. > This is just what you didn’t need.
  1717. > Of all the bars in town, you had to walk into the one that’s - what?
  1718. > What do you even call this place?
  1719. > Stumbling to the side as a pair of stumbling, inebriated men push their way past you.
  1720. > One shoots you a very salacious wink.
  1721. > Almost without thinking you half-turn to leave.
  1722. > And then pause.
  1723. > If you left, the bouncer would have a good laugh at you.
  1724. > Confusing as this is, there’s still some part of your pride that rebels at that idea.
  1725. > But somehow, you don’t think that sticking around here would-
  1726. > “Hey, you.”
  1727. > One long-time instinct of a soldier is to automatically know when the phrase ‘hey, you’ is in fact directed at you.
  1728. > So your head snaps up at the call, only to find the last thing you’d have expected here:
  1729. > Another mare.
  1730. > Tossing her golden mane, she throws her head back with a grin and motions for you to follow.
  1731. > The path she takes is winding, drinks being carefully slipped from the tray balanced on her back with something that reminds you of nothing so much as a hooked spatula.
  1732. > “You lookin’ for someone here, or what?”
  1733. “No.”
  1734. > “Belongin’ to someone here?”
  1735. “No.”
  1736. > “Cool. Just come with me.”
  1737.  
  1738. > At last the mare’s tray is empty, and she leads you back to the bar proper.
  1739. > There she hops up on a stool - barely sparing a glance for the other man working the far end - and motions for you to do the same.
  1740. > At least here, the music isn’t quite as pounding.
  1741. > And the stages aren’t right in your field of view.
  1742. > “So, the way I figure it you weren’t quite expecting this, but are looking to forget things for a while and were looking for a drink. What’ll it be?”
  1743. “How’d you figure that out?”
  1744. > “Drink first. Then talk.”
  1745. “Fine, fine. Whiskey, if you have any. With ice.”
  1746. > You nose into your jacket to find the wallet, and from there slap a twenty on the bar.
  1747. > The mare has already managed to fill the drink by the time you do so.
  1748. > Firey and heavy, it’s a welcome wake-up - warming your core despite the cold temperature as it travels down your throat.
  1749. > “So. I’m Barley Brew. You?”
  1750. “Spitfire.”
  1751. > For once, she doesn’t recognize the name.
  1752. > You’re almost glad.
  1753. > “Good ta meetcha. So, I knew you weren’t expecting this because you had the same look every newbie does the first time, and I knew you were looking to forget things ‘cause - heh - really, what do any of them come here for?”
  1754. > Delightful.
  1755. > It was that transparent too…
  1756. “Well, I was looking to relax a little bit. But I wasn’t expecting all, uh… all this.”
  1757. > “Ah, y’first time in a titty bar?”
  1758. “A what?”
  1759. > She laughs, a surprisingly lighthearted laugh.
  1760. > “A titty bar. Y’know, like your teats. That’s what they call this place, ‘cause they’re all showin’ off…”
  1761. > Well, they’re showing off a lot more than that.
  1762. > But you guess it holds up.
  1763. “So it’s like, what - a reverse tack show? Instead of a pony putting stuff on, they pay to see it all get taken off?”
  1764. > “Pretty much.”
  1765. > Huh.
  1766. > After your first, immature years you’re always kept your distance from those.
  1767.  
  1768. > Flying shows are one thing - after all, every Wonderbolt learned at a certain point that there were some fans who adored a little more than your flying skill.
  1769. > But making a life out of it..?
  1770. > You sink back another gulp of liquor.
  1771. “You’re awfully laid back about it.”
  1772. > “After a while, it just becomes a job. You learn to live with it. We all have.”
  1773. “ ‘We’?”
  1774. > She nods - mixing up a new set of drinks and passing them off to a woman who carries them to tables.
  1775. > “There’s a few of us around. Myself, my husband Buzz Cut - his talent is manecuts, but he handles the dancers’ makeup. Toffee’s a dancer. Belongs to someone else, but gets loaned out for shows here.”
  1776. “They don’t… y’know....”
  1777. > “What, give us trouble? Nah, it’s hands-off here. Hard rule. Brutus would toss ‘em out by their neck if anyone did.”
  1778. “Brutus?”
  1779. > “Y’know, the bouncer? Looks like somepony shaved a diamond dog?”
  1780. > Only barely do you resist spraying whiskey across the bar with a sputtering laugh.
  1781. “Oh, Celestia - you’re right. He really does look like one, doesn’t he?”
  1782. > “Yeah. A fair bit brighter than one, though. No poet, but not stupid either.”
  1783. > Another round of drinks, poured out and slid onto a plate with the spatula-hook.
  1784. > “What about you?”
  1785. “We’re about twenty minutes away, at the lake. I’m with someone named Anonymous; I fly-”
  1786. > Can’t say that you take the controls.
  1787. > You’d forgotten how easy it got to be relaxed when just chatting with another pony.
  1788. “-alongside the planes when they’re taking off and landing, do navigation, that kind of thing.”
  1789. > “Huh. He a decent guy?”
  1790. “Well, he gave me a fifty and set me loose to enjoy myself tonight. That tell you enough?”
  1791. > “Yeah, it kinda does. You been with him long?”
  1792. “Pretty long now, yeah. Always being on the move flying around can be hard, but he’s done a lot for me. So, I don’t blame him.”
  1793.  
  1794. > Now that you understand what this all is, you can actually watch the - dancers, you suppose they would be called, from a more objective point of view.
  1795. > And in that respect, your judgement is - well, they’re skilled enough.
  1796. > More than you’d estimated at first.
  1797. “What about you? Living around…”
  1798. > You extend a wing to indicate the club’s environment.
  1799. “...all this?”
  1800. > “I mean, it’s sure different. I was a small-town filly back home; hadn’t seen much of anything like this. But this is a small town too, so it’s not too different than home.”
  1801. > She shrugs, slipping her hoof into a slipper with a scrubbing attachment fixed to it and setting to work cleaning the bar.
  1802. > “There’re enough ponies around that none of us are alone. Buzz Cut’s a good stallion, and I love him. No representative of the Princesses to marry us, of course, but we’re as good as husband and wife.”
  1803. “Heh. Lucky you.”
  1804. > “Yeah, what about you? You ever think about throwing on a harness, doing a little dance like that-”
  1805. > Another nod to the dancers.
  1806. > “-for someone? Show off a little tack-work? Preen those wings a bit, show him your tuft?”
  1807. “Wha - I - ah -”
  1808. > “Oh come on, you’ve got the body for it. Dancer, I’d reckon. Or maybe an athlete.”
  1809. > Oh, Sweet Celestia and Luna both help you!
  1810. > The images that had popped into your head when she said that - all tacked up and showing off for Anonymous?
  1811. > Your wings snap out on their own, but at least you’re able to keep your tail firmly snapped down on your haunches.
  1812. > Did - did you want that?!
  1813. > Okay, so there might have been some moments when you were junior in your career.
  1814. > Moments involving a bridle and saddle and some other things you were very, very happy to have a long behind you.
  1815. > And certainly not things you want to repeat with Anonymous!
  1816.  
  1817. > Even if it had been a long time since you’d had anything to find relief with but your hoof, thinking of having him in you still didn’t feel - right.
  1818. > Barley Brew laughs.
  1819. > “Forget it. That’s all I needed to see.”
  1820. > You give her a roll of your eyes, but smile as well.
  1821. > Sure enough, she’d successfully taken your mind off weightier matters.
  1822. “And for you? Beyond this place, what’s life like in this ‘small town’?”
  1823. > “Quiet. The guy who runs this place isn’t so bad. You’d think, his business basically sells sex, he’s gonna be some creepo who’s selling us to even slimier creeps in the back, right?”
  1824. > Smirking, Barley slings another round of drinks to a passing waitress.
  1825. > “Nah. Pretty upstanding guy. For, y’know -”
  1826. > She lowers her voice.
  1827. > “-slaveowner and all.”
  1828. > And the tone those three words are spoken in, more than anything else, drag your mood straight down from the sky back to reality.
  1829. > Talking about his business, joking at the bouncer’s expense - that was all fine to do aloud.
  1830. > Commenting on his being a slaver?
  1831. > Still a whisper.
  1832. > She still feared to talk about that openly.
  1833. > Catching your look, Barley shakes her head with a little ear flick and gives a small nicker that’s barely audible over the thrumming music.
  1834. > “I’m fine, Spitfire. Really. We’re not worked too hard, we’re safe, we even get days off, I have a beautiful husband and an adorable little colt. There are humans that have it worse than me. So I wear a collar and am technically owned. Big deal.”
  1835. “I guess. Still doesn’t sit right to me.”
  1836. > You down the last of your whiskey right before standing up to hop off the chair.
  1837. > Only to be met with the sound of more being poured into the cup.
  1838. > “Sit down for a second longer, Spitfire. Don’t let me chase you off before we’re done.”
  1839. > You almost leave - almost.
  1840. > But something makes your rump fall back to the chair and wings settle down again.
  1841. “...I’m listening.”
  1842.  
  1843. > “Look, remember when I said people come in here running from stuff? Well, I guess it counts for ponies too.”
  1844. > Buck.
  1845. > She’s got you there.
  1846. > “Look. Whatever it is.. Quit running. That’s my advice.”
  1847. > Again Barley gestures around the club.
  1848. > “The ones who keep coming back in here, they run away from it all - and it never does them any good. I don’t know if it’s your owner or what, but don’t run from it.”
  1849. > In the end, you spend another hour or so just chatting with her.
  1850. > Sometimes about heavier things, mostly about inane little topics - things to keep your mind from falling back to the defaults.
  1851. > And occasionally drinking here and there.
  1852. > Not much; you aren’t even stumbling as you strut out past the bouncer, ‘Brutus’.
  1853. > You are tempted to shoot a couple of mocking barks towards him as you take to your wings, but that’s probably the alcohol talking.
  1854. > No, instead you settle into heading back towards to the edge of town on perhaps slightly-wobbly wings.
  1855. > There’s a few minutes to wait until the van shows up, though, and in those few minutes your thoughts start to drift back to heavier matters..
  1856. > Don’t go running, huh?
  1857. > Easy for her to say.
  1858. > She hadn’t had to take the lives of other ponies under her wings.
  1859. > You did.
  1860. > By the time the car pulled up again, you were already deep in your thoughts.
  1861. > Much like the trip in, you didn’t talk much on the trip back either - despite the joking and laughter going on around you.
  1862. > Were you running from this?
  1863. > Yes.
  1864. > But what else could you do?
  1865. > Dive full-in?
  1866. > Ugh.
  1867. > You didn’t want to be a literal slave-driver.
  1868. > But maybe that was the thing to do - try and open up a bit more.
  1869. > Talk to the others a bit more - try and be a bit more open with Kalendae, Cloud Patch, Logic Gate, and Bell Curve.
  1870. > Not a luxury you had as an officer before, but this wasn’t Equestria.
  1871. > Heh - this whole arrangement was still so different from what you had done as an officer before.
  1872.  
  1873. > Back at the base, you hop from the van and head for the edge of the water again.
  1874. > This was one of your favorite places to perch.
  1875. > Not quite the same as being sprawled out on the edge of Cloudsdale, staring down at all of Equestria stretching out beneath you.
  1876. > But close.
  1877. > ...or was this a kind of running away too?
  1878. > Fragments of your conversation with Barley Brew bounce around in your head, like lightning bolts jumping between clouds.
  1879. > Have to face what you were being asked to do.
  1880. > Running never helped.
  1881. > ...unless it was running from the mental image of sauntering towards Anonymous, the firm straps of the harness gripping your flanks and-
  1882. > Augh!
  1883. > You quickly force your wings back down from extension.
  1884. > Yes, that image was not just going to be run from but forcefully ejected from your mind.
  1885. > You’re so caught up with your thoughts that you barely notice the tapping of boots approaching from behind you.
  1886. > “Hey, Spitfire?”
  1887. > You head turns back to find Renaud towering over you.
  1888. “Hey, Renaud. Sorry. Just clearing my head a bit.”
  1889. > “Still?”
  1890. “What can I say? It’s kind foggy up there right now.”
  1891. > This, at least, gets a grin out of him.
  1892. > “Hey Renaud, you coming?”
  1893. > Terry stands with Cloud Patch in a pool of light from one of the facility’s streetlamps.
  1894. > Renaud lifts a hand and waves back:
  1895. > “In a minute!”
  1896. > Then his his voice drops as he turns back to you.
  1897. > “...those two are really getting along well. Practically inseparable now.”
  1898. “Glad someone’s managing to get along.”
  1899. > You turn back to the water, then over onto your back - splaying your wings out and staring at the clouds passing overhead.
  1900. > Oh, you wish you could be resting up there instead!
  1901. > “What’re you thinking about?”
  1902. “Running away… not like, literally running away-”
  1903. > Your hurried addition probably sounds more suspicious than none at all.
  1904. “-but like, running away from responsibility. From what I’m supposed to be doing.”
  1905.  
  1906. > “Anything I can do to help?”
  1907. “Yeah, actually. Tell me what’s eating at Alicia. If I have to solve these problems, experience says it’s one thing at a time.”
  1908. > “Agh. Of course, the one thing you ask…”
  1909. > Renaud takes his hat off, running a hand through his hair.
  1910. > “...I can’t, Spitfire. Not unless it’s an emergency. She’s got a right to her privacy, and until I think it’s a problem that’s not something I’ll tell.”
  1911. > Grumbling, you flop back over onto your belly and stare out over the water again.
  1912. “Ugh, fine. It was worth a shot…”
  1913. > After a moment, though, you add:
  1914. “Okay, tell me this instead. Where are you from?”
  1915. > “The town of… ah, you wouldn’t know it. It’s near Saguenay.”
  1916. > You don’t know that, either.
  1917. > It probably shows, because Renaud adds:
  1918. > “On the other side of this continent. Far, far away.”
  1919. “...you go back there often?”
  1920. > “No. I have not been back in years.”
  1921. > Pondering this, you nod.
  1922. “...the first time I went back to Equestria, it was - chaos. Sheer accident. We’d never planned it. We just wanted to stay alive, and I guess that kept me a little focused.”
  1923. > “But now you do not feel this way.”
  1924. “Now… I feel like I’m really going back this time. Really, really - not just skipping through while I try not to die, but going back as - who I was. Back to being a team leader.”
  1925. > You sit up again, fluttering your wings.
  1926. “Problem is, I’m not the same pony anymore. I wasn’t a slave back then. This isn’t the same at all, and… I don’t feel like I’m ready for this.”
  1927. > “I know. We all chose, but you and your owner…”
  1928. “Yeah. And I can’t shake the feeling we’re going to let them all down.”
  1929. > Looking up at him, you cock an eyebrow.
  1930. “Got any shining advice, one crew captain to another?”
  1931. > “Does Anonymous know?”
  1932. “Yes. But he can’t change my mind with a snap of his fingers either.”
  1933. > Thankfully
  1934.  
  1935. > “My advice? I know that feeling. They say there’s a word for it - ‘Imposter syndrome’, I think. When you feel like you’re a fraud, and any moment everything will come crashing down.”
  1936. > That certainly sounds like what you’re feeling…
  1937. “How do you cure it?”
  1938. > Renaud looks down at you and grins.
  1939. > “By realizing you are qualified. It might not be easy, but nothing I have seen so far makes me think you aren’t ready to do this.”
  1940. > Ugh.
  1941. > Not what you were hoping to hear, but…
  1942. > “I’ve been watching the others. They’re not friends yet, but they’re learning. It can still happen, Spitfire.Trust me on this - I’m pretty sure I’m older than you.”
  1943. “You have no idea how rare that is for me to hear.”
  1944. > “Enjoy it then.”
  1945. > He stands up with a grunt, stretching loudly and putting his hat back on.
  1946. > “And just keep pushing on them. Like you said, Cloud Patch and Terry are already close. Give the rest time, and don’t give up.”
  1947. > Unfortunately, you only get a few days to take his advice to heart before everything comes crashing down again.
  1948.  
  1949. --------
  1950.  
  1951. > The pounding of feet coming up the stairway into the cockpit comes suddenly.
  1952. > Later, you would only half-remember tossing down the study notebook to get up out of the seat and see who it was.
  1953. > That it was Sai - one of Thomas’ technicians - climbing the stairs, gasping and flushed even through his dark skin, that you remembered.
  1954. “Anonymous, something’s wrong-”
  1955. > “Meeting - in the planning building - go!”
  1956. > The look on his face gives the rest of what you need to know:
  1957. > Whatever had happened, it wasn’t good.
  1958. > You’re down the stairs in a second, Anonymous’ boots pounding close behind you.
  1959. > A cloud hangs over the meeting room when you arrive; Renaud, Kalendae, even Gerard share downcast looks with the rest of Thomas’ team.
  1960. “What happened?”
  1961. > “Spitfire…”
  1962. > Even Gregory Whitworth looks shaken, leaning back in his chair as though his strength had been sapped from him.
  1963. “What is it? Are we waiting for Terry and Cloud Patch to get back from Port Alberni-”
  1964. > “Cloud Patch isn’t coming back, Spitfire.”
  1965. > Your thoughts freeze up, crashing to a halt like a foal caught by a sudden gust.
  1966. > “There’s been.... An accident. Their car, on the way back - a tire blew out. They slid off the road. The car rolled…”
  1967. > Oh, no.
  1968. > No, no, no-
  1969. > “They’re both at the hospital. It’s bad, though.”
  1970. > Ears laying flat, you fall onto your haunches as the news sinks in.
  1971. > You must look just about the same as everyone else now:
  1972. > Shaken.
  1973. > Not quite broken, but badly shaken.
  1974. > Terry hadn’t been close, exactly, but he was probably the friendliest between himself, Renaud, and Alicia.
  1975. > And, of course, Cloud…
  1976. “I promised him.”
  1977. > Your whispered protest prompts Anonymous to rest a hand on your head.
  1978. > “It’s not your fault, Spitfire.”
  1979. “I said he’d be free again. At the end of all of this.”
  1980. > “Spitfire-”
  1981. “Yeah, yeah. Accidents.”
  1982. > It sounds as empty as it had back when you were Captain.
  1983.  
  1984. > Accidents - even when they didn’t happen under your watch - never felt like ‘just accidents’.
  1985. > They were faults.
  1986. > Objectively, you know this had nothing to do with you.
  1987. > How Terry drove wasn’t even something on your radar.
  1988. > But still…
  1989. “But - I promised him he’d be free.”
  1990. > Sai arrives a few minutes later, but no one really has said anything new.
  1991. > No one knows what to say.
  1992. > Eventually Gregory pushes himself up from his chair, looking around the room:
  1993. > “All of you… take a little bit of time off. Renaud, Alicia, let me know if you need to talk.”
  1994. > Of course.
  1995. > Terry was their co-worker; they must be taking this even worse than you are.
  1996. > As people and ponies begin to drift out you head for Renaud’s side.
  1997. > Looking down at your approach, he cocks his head slightly.
  1998. “...I’m sorry. I - It hurts, when you lose a long-term teammate. And… yeah. If you want to talk, I… I’m ears, I guess.”
  1999. > For a second you were worried he would be mad, but then he nods.
  2000. > “Yeah. Yeah… oh, fuck. Terry. What can I say about him, man…”
  2001. > Renaud pauses, rubbing his eyes - light wrinkles moving back and forth in his skin when he massages the skin.
  2002. > The chair creaks a bit when he leans back in it.
  2003. > “Terry was one of the younger guys on the crew. A real go-getter… always wanted to see something new, do something different. Pissed some of us off in the beginning, y’know?”
  2004. “I could imagine, yes. Wonderbolts sometimes had some ponies like that. Eager cadets, looking to push the limits…”
  2005. > “Yeah, well. I think that’s why he took to Cloud Patch so well. Cloud was - something different. Something new and fascinating.”
  2006. > You settle back on your haunches again, looking out the open door.
  2007. > From this angle the edge of the gleaming lake is just barely visible.
  2008.  
  2009. “He was good for Cloud Patch too, I think. Ponies are traded around like tools to be used, so to just be appreciated for who you are - that was good for Cloud too.”
  2010. > “Yeah. Shit, Terry… a God-damn tire blowing out… he wasn’t a crazy driver, y’know? Just fucking bad luck.”
  2011. > Rubbing another hand through his hair, Renaud sighs.
  2012. “You want to feel like you could have done something.”
  2013. > “Exactly. Feels dumb, ‘cause we all knew we were in danger. We used to drop water on fires, you know? That was our job. Wasn’t exactly safe. But I always figured we could look out for each other…”
  2014. > He pauses, then looks down at you.
  2015. > “Don’t suppose you’ve got any advice for how to deal with it?”
  2016. “Keep reminding yourself this wasn’t your fault. Hammer it home, every time you feel yourself slipping in. Repeat it again. And then… talk to somepo- someone else. Alicia, for sure. She’ll need it as much as you. If you can find any of your old crew… talk to them. I’m sure they’re feeling the same way.”
  2017. > “Heh. Bet you’re right about that.”
  2018. > One hand comes down and almost touches your head - then hesitates, as if he isn’t sure if that’s proper.
  2019. > Thankfully.
  2020. > You weren’t sure how you’d feel about that.
  2021. > “Kinda feel bad for you now, though. You ever able to find any more of your team?”
  2022. > Keeping the momentary flash of emotional pain from your face isn’t quite possible.
  2023. “Once. He was… slavery changes a pony, you know? Fire Streak wasn’t the same. Lost his spark.”
  2024. > “Shit. I’m sorry, I didn’t-”
  2025. “Of course you didn’t. Don’t worry about me; I came to terms with it a long time ago.”
  2026. > He nods, but you can sense he was still a little shaken by it:
  2027. > The wrinkles on his head crinkling up as his face shifts between subtle expressions. 
  2028. > So it’s not any surprise when he speaks again:
  2029. > “When you say broken…”
  2030.  
  2031. “He wasn’t being abused. Wasn’t tortured. I went through worse than he did. But when you lose your home, lose your friends, lose your purpose… he had broken all the same. Gone from a good, strong, up and coming pony to just being blissfully happy he wasn’t being hurt.”
  2032. > “Fuck.”
  2033. > Yeah.
  2034. > That does about sum it up in your mind.
  2035. > You glance towards Alicia, who is still staring off at a wall.
  2036. > It didn’t seem likely this would quell whatever hatred she bore for you, but...
  2037. “Why don’t you go talk to her, huh? She’ll need some support too, and I don’t think she wants to see me right now.”
  2038. > “Yeah, fair. Thanks, Spitfire.”
  2039. “No sweat.”
  2040. > As he gets up and goes to join her, you head for the doorway.
  2041. > When you look again, she had already put a hand on her shoulder and bowed her head.
  2042. > Yes - despite that bitterness, whatever its cause, there was still a person inside of her with feelings that were hurting right now.
  2043. > That much, you had guessed right about.
  2044. > Barely have you stepped outside when another voice speaks:
  2045. > “This is a sad loss.”
  2046. > Your head snaps up, surprise plainly written on your features.
  2047. > The voice you knew, the words you knew, but to hear them in combination with each other...
  2048. > Gerard clicks beak, taloned forelegs curling into the pavement.
  2049. > “Is it so unexpected to hear me regret their death?”
  2050. “You didn’t exactly give me a strong first impression.”
  2051. > His head bobs back and forth, as if examining you from different angles.
  2052. > But as you examine further it becomes clear that even he was showing signs of the foul mood that had settled over everyone:
  2053. > The golden circle of his eye, not quite as sharp and gleaming as normal.
  2054. > His crest of feathers around his head drooping.
  2055. > “I do not hide that I think little of you, pony. But to be trapped in a human vehicle, victim of fate alone… that is no good way to die. And so you have my sympathies.”
  2056. > You aren’t sure how to parse that.
  2057.  
  2058. > Is there any ‘good’ way to die?
  2059. > You don’t think so.
  2060. > A dead pony is dead.
  2061. > Giselle fell in battle, but she was still no better for it.
  2062. > Hooked break clicking again, Gerard turns aside with a flick of his leonine tail.
  2063. > “I shall see you again when we resume training.”
  2064. “Wait, Gerard, I -”
  2065. > You hadn’t respected Giselle when you first ran into her either.
  2066. > Could this be the start of fixing things with Gerard?
  2067. “-I don’t quite understand what you’re saying, but - for saying it. Thank you.”
  2068. > One of his crest-feathers twitches and beak-half opens in a smile.
  2069. > “Your words are heard.”
  2070. > Alone again with your thoughts.
  2071. > And while you had been right about Alicia and thought you were about Gerard, what you weren’t sure of is if you would ever want to risk the heartbreak of seeing another of your former Wonderbolts again.
  2072. > No death is good, but death is far better than living broken.
  2073. > You cannot deny to yourself you fear to see another ‘bolt like that.
  2074. > The trailer you sleep in with the others beckons - a sanctified refuge, away from this news.
  2075. > Anonymous follows you soon after.
  2076. > Without a word he sits down on the bed you’d slumped into puts an arm around you.
  2077. > Similarly wordlessly you shift your head over, nudging it into the folds of his jacket.
  2078. > The familiar scent is - needed.
  2079. > Something to center yourself on.
  2080. > “It wasn’t your fault, Spitfire. You just keep telling yourself that until it starts to sound true, then you tell yourself that some more.”
  2081. > You give a low whinny, though it’s so thin and weak that it can barely be called that.
  2082. > “Don’t make noises at me.”
  2083. > His hand is on the back of your neck, fingers meshed in your mane.
  2084. “You know, I… I told Renaud something similar. About how to get through it.”
  2085. > “So I’m just throwing your own advice back at you, huh?”
  2086. “Maybe… I needed to hear it.”
  2087. > “C’mere. Give me one of your wings.”
  2088.  
  2089. > You do, turning about on the bed to spread it across his lap.
  2090. > Anonymous’ fingers dance along it - sorting through the feathers, straightening them, brushing along bone and tendon, squeezing and stroking the muscled bands that anchor wing to pony.
  2091. “We… we shouldn’t be doing this. What if somepony else comes in-”
  2092. > “I locked the door.”
  2093. > You snort in spite of yourself, tears beginning to crowd your eyes.
  2094. “You can’t do that. It’s their trailer too, Alicia and Gerard-”
  2095. > “They can fucking deal with it. Besides, Renaud is dealing with Alicia right now, Gerard can find a tree or something, and you need me.”
  2096. > Another snort - or was it a cough, laugh, or whimper?
  2097. > You’re not sure.
  2098. “I broke my promise to him.”
  2099. > “No, you didn’t. No promise can cover just fucked-up luck like that.”
  2100. “You’re talking about Eddie.”
  2101. > Anonymous pauses - thinking back to the copilot he had lost to an accident in the air.
  2102. > “...maybe I am. Not sure I ever said ‘I promise’, but he was my - mine to look after up there. So - we’ve both had losses now.”
  2103. “No…”
  2104. > You sigh.
  2105. > It hurts to do that.
  2106. > It hurts to breathe at all.
  2107. “There were others, before this. Wonderbolts. Trainees. ‘Freak accidents’.”
  2108. > “But somehow, you’re still here.”
  2109. “Yeah.”
  2110. > “And you still will be soon. If nothing else, because I am telling you you will be.”
  2111. “...maybe. But right now - just stay here a little longer, please.”
  2112. > A hand moves from your wing, coming to rest on the center of your back.
  2113. > “Sure thing, Spitfire. Staying right here.”
  2114.  
  2115. --------
  2116.  
  2117. > “This wasn’t part of the plan!”
  2118. “It was exactly the plan. We both knew what would have to happen to them.”
  2119. > “No. No it wasn’t! You damn near almost kill them! They might still die. You-”
  2120. “Shhhh. Shh. Come here. Yes, just like that. Let me hold you.”
  2121. > “…”
  2122. “You feel better now, don’t you?”
  2123. > “Killing them wasn’t part of the plan.”
  2124.  
  2125. “I did not know the car would roll, yes. But bruises do not keep someone from flying. We needed bigger wounds to keep them down. I was hoping for a concussion, but...”
  2126. > “But - Spitfire - what about Spitfire -”
  2127. “Knows nothing and blames herself.”
  2128. > “- and Cloud Patch -”
  2129. “Shh, shh.”
  2130. > “No - no, don’t just shush me…”
  2131. “These things happen, sometimes. But what matters now is the plan is back on track. We can make our move when the time is right. Then everything will be better.”
  2132. > “…”
  2133. “Right?”
  2134. > He wants to be angry.
  2135. > Furious.
  2136. > But the anger is already draining out, sucked away.
  2137. > Just as you’d planned.
  2138. > “...yes. We’ll make our move.”
  2139. “Good… good. Go back to the others.”
  2140. > “Hey, one thing... Do… do you think she’ll like me? When we bring her-”
  2141. “She will love you. She will see how much everything you’ve done means, and she will love you.”
  2142. > “You’re - sure?”
  2143. “Absolutely. Now, go.”
  2144. > “Will you-”
  2145. “I will be coming soon, yes.”
  2146.  
  2147. --------
  2148.  
  2149. > You take the rest of the day off, and the next morning is a slow start.
  2150. > Even when you recommence studying the distractions are many.
  2151. > Terry had barely been a part of your world, but now his easygoing laugh was a startling absence.
  2152. > On the second day, you file into the meeting room with Anonymous.
  2153. > Everyone else important is there:
  2154. > Thomas Atmos, Renaud, Alicia - still looking somehow reduced, as if the loss had drained her of something - Anonymous, Gerard, and yourself.
  2155. > Even the room seems to be feeling the loss still:
  2156. > Strewn with even more mess and chaos than is normal, showing that nobody had bothered to clean it over the last couple days.
  2157. > For the first minute or two, nobody speaks - nobody can bring themselves to.
  2158. > Eventually the awkwardness becomes unbearable.
  2159. “Okay. Okay, nobody wants to say it, but someone’s got to start. If this is still on - and I really don’t want to be sold off and see Anonymous go to jail - we need another navigator and flight engineer.”
  2160. > Alicia flinches and curls up on herself.
  2161. > Thomas nods slowly.
  2162. > “...yeah. Yeah, we do. Renaud, Alicia, I wanted to ask the two of you first - if there was anyone you knew.”
  2163. > Renaud shakes his head.
  2164. > “I’ve called everyone I know. Nobody’s interested. It’s too risky.”
  2165. > No words come from Alicia.
  2166. > Anonymous stirs.
  2167. > “...does that mean another pony?”
  2168. > “It does.”
  2169. > Nodding, Thomas hands him a sheet of paper.
  2170. > “Mr. Whitworth already has one picked out for you to… consider.”
  2171. > Something about the way he says that pricks your ears and sets your tail lashing.
  2172. > But before you can speak, Anonymous does instead:
  2173. > “What the hell is this, Thomas? ‘Known addiction to suppressants’? ‘Cog Whirl’ here isn’t fit to be working, let alone flying-”
  2174.  
  2175. > “Engineering-talented ponies are hard to find, Anonymous. Most are snapped up by the big tech companies. We’re making do with what’s left. Unfortunately, Mr. Whitworth has - bought in to your idea that a pony’s talent can compensate for lack of training.”
  2176. “He’s not going to let us say no on this, is he?”
  2177. > Thomas wordlessly shakes his head.
  2178. > Anonymous swears softly, then speaks up again:
  2179. > “We told him we weren’t going to fly with crew we don’t trust. Now he’s trying to screw us over with this deal?”
  2180. > “He’s right. There’s no way we can fly with a drugged-up pony trying to navigate for us.”
  2181. > Thomas raises his hands at Renaud’s interjection, shaking his head.
  2182. > “Don’t look at me. I’m not any happier about this, but I don’t think he wants to delay this any longer than necessary.”
  2183. > You can understand why - given the amount of money he is giving you daily just to learn.
  2184. > But agreement doesn’t necessarily fly side-by-side with understanding.
  2185. > Still...
  2186. “Does it say anything about his addiction?”
  2187. > “What?”
  2188. > You rear up, placing one hoof on Anonymous’ thigh as you peer over the papers he is holding.
  2189. “The addiction. Does it say what he’s hooked on? And how bad?”
  2190. > “Uh, hold on. Here, Liozipram and Tunerifex. No physiological addiction, known to act out in search of a dose, not excessively violent, disregards authority…”
  2191. > The rest, you don’t need to hear.
  2192. “Lozzies and Toon.”
  2193. > Anonymous shoots you an odd look.
  2194. > “You know this stuff?”
  2195. “Everypony knows about it, I’ve seen it in action a couple times. They give it to unicorns to seal off their magic. Cheaper than an adjustable implant or horn ring, but doesn’t fully cut them off entirely the way a basic, solid ring does. Some small number of them get a high off of it. He probably felt it once, decided drugged bliss was better than being aware.”
  2196. > “Can it be purged?”
  2197. > You shrug at Thomas.
  2198.  
  2199. “The paper says it’s not a physical addiction. Just in his head. Can it be fixed? Yes. Fast enough? I don’t know. Ask Logic Gate; she might know more.”
  2200. > No one has a good answer to that.
  2201. > Finally Thomas looks up.
  2202. > “Look. I’ll dig into this a bit more. If he turns up and he’s totally unworkable, we can all bring it up to Gregory and tell him this isn’t working. In the meantime, keep training with what you have and we’ll keep searching for a navigator and maybe flight engineer.”
  2203.  
  2204. --------
  2205.  
  2206. > It's been Moons since you had heard the squeal of a pony in pain.
  2207. > Not a whinny or even a neigh, but a toneless, wordless scream of absolute terror.
  2208. > And to hear it coming from a stallion...!
  2209. > You're already on wing when a second noise resonates across the airfield:
  2210. > This time, the piercing call of a griffon at fight.
  2211. > Celestia damn them!
  2212. > Weaving over the top of a building in pursuit of the sounds of combat, you come down on all four hooves with a slam-
  2213. > -just in time be nearly bowled over by the tumbling, whirling ball of claws, hooves, beak and fangs that is Kalendae and Gerard.
  2214. > No, wait - Kalendae, Gerard, and Bell Curve too!
  2215. > Logic Gate stands a bit further back, as does Alicia - both of them wide eyed at the brawl but apparently unwilling to approach further.
  2216. > Even as you take stock, Kalendae finally shakes herself free of Gerard and weaves away, a low blur of purple and blue:
  2217. > Fangs snapping at his shoulders and wing-claws raking deep furrows in his side as she whinnies and screams.
  2218. > He is giving just as good, though:
  2219. > Wicked beak darting in to snap at Kalendae's wings, a clawed hind-paw lashing out to keep Bell's powerful Earth Pony kicks at a distance.
  2220. > Circling constantly to keep them out of his blind-side.
  2221. > A few drops of blood spatter the ground; whose?
  2222. > Who knows.
  2223. > But more would flow soon, if you do not-
  2224. > "OFFICER ON THE CLOUD, TEN-SHUN!"
  2225.  
  2226. > The words probably mean nothing to Gerard, but he freezes just as quickly as Kalendae at the tone.
  2227. > Bell Curve tosses his head, whinnying, and dances around for another kick before realizing it is over.
  2228. "What-"
  2229. > Your ears have pinned all the way back, tail lashing so hard it slaps your cutie marks.
  2230. "-are you three up to? Why are we murdering each other?!"
  2231. > "He-"
  2232. > Bell Curve pauses, hisses, winces.
  2233. > Ah, the blood was his; a fresh line now drops from his shoulder.
  2234. > Immediately the others jump in, overwhelming you with voices babbling over each other - Gerard and Kalendae, shortly joined by Bell Curve.
  2235. “Stop!”
  2236. > Your eyes roll hard, and land on Bell.
  2237. > As good a place as any to start!
  2238. “Bell Curve, what in all the skies happened here?”
  2239. > Raising a shaking hoof, he jabs it at the griffon.
  2240. > “H-He - He said - said - Cloud - Cloud Patch -”
  2241. > Of course.
  2242. > Why did you even bother asking?
  2243. “Gerard?”
  2244. > Celestia damn him, you swear that griffon is smirking.
  2245. > “I merely said that if the pony Cloud Patch had been a griffon, he might have had the reflexes to escape a crashing car.”
  2246. > From the corner of your eyes, you see Bell twitch.
  2247. > A cold, hard glare stops him in his tracks.
  2248. "And that was it?"
  2249. > "Yes. Well, until he threatened to attack me."
  2250. > Again you look to Bell Curve.
  2251. > His mouth bobs open and shut, ears falling back as he nods in confirmation of the griffon's words.
  2252. > Good; at least you wouldn't have to deal with excuses from him.
  2253. "...right. So, he said he was going to come after you, and-?"
  2254. > Shrugging, Gerard examines one of his claws with a bored expression.
  2255. > "And, I was going to - show him why this was a poor idea. That I could take him first."
  2256. "Right. And that's when you-"
  2257. > You hoof jabs at Kalendae.
  2258. "-stepped in, I assume?"
  2259. > "My Captain, Bell Curve is not a soldier. He would have been quickly overwhelmed by the griffon-"
  2260. "By Gerard."
  2261. > "Yes, My Captain. I stepped in to stop this. I could not allow him to be hurt."
  2262.  
  2263. > She raises her muzzle proudly, defiantly staring the griffon down.
  2264. > "It would be poor, to see a pony not even on 'our' team mauled by one who supposedly was part of it."
  2265. "And that's when Bell got injured, I take it."
  2266. > Again, Gerard shrugs with his wings.
  2267. > "I did not intend to hobble him. But when that mare struck me, I may have - acted out of reflex."
  2268. > You click your tongue in annoyance.
  2269. > Kalendae was definitely right; if Gerard had harmed one of Thomas ponies' it could very well have been the end of this entire venture before it even got off the ground - literally.
  2270. > 'Mauled' might be a bit of an overstatement, but you're pretty sure Gerard's method of 'teaching' would involve everything up to blood being actually drawn!
  2271. > At the same time...
  2272. > If Gerard had meant to provoke something, this was the perfect way.
  2273. > A supposedly mundane - if rude - observation that had ended with a pony initiating the brawl.
  2274. > And you can hear rapidly-approaching footsteps that suggest more people are about to show up and make your job a lot harder.
  2275. "...Bell, go back to Thomas. Get that cut looked at. I'll come talk to you later."
  2276. > Again, to his credit Bell does not argue your instructions.
  2277. > Then again, looking at how he is limping away, he probably just wanted to be away from here.
  2278. > Now, to deal with these two...
  2279. > Gerard first; he'll be simpler to deal with.
  2280. > You round on him, circling about to bring yourself to his blind side.
  2281. > Not that you expect him to let you stay there, but by nudging in your path you can force Gerard to back up - right into the side of the nearest trailer.
  2282. "Gerard. I thought I told you no settling grudges in this group?"
  2283. > "No grudges were being settled, Spitfire. I merely stated a truth."
  2284. "Don't give me that load of dragon-shit. I know the game you're playing. Push just the right buttons, act all innocent. Well, I left that kind of thing behind in Junior Flight Camp, and I'm not putting up with it from you either."
  2285.  
  2286. > His remaining eye snaps to you, a golden orb now boiling with anger.
  2287. > "I wonder who is settling grudges here, Spitfire? You accuse me of starting fights - with what, the truth? You ponies become angry over everything; in the Aeries back home, it was understood: I said the truth, not an insult."
  2288. > Did he actually think he was telling the truth?
  2289. > That commenting so crudely on a dead pony was not a provocation?
  2290. > Catching your uncertainty, Gerard quickly leans forward to add:
  2291. > “Did I show anger when you said I could not pilot, as my eye was gone? No! Did I not tell you I was sorry he died as he did? Because it was the truth then too.”
  2292. > You ponder for all of a second before realizing that in the end, it did not matter.
  2293. "Y'know what, Gerard? I don't think it matters. Yeah, maybe that would have flown back at your home. But we're not there. We're not in Equestria either. We're here, and that means we play by whatever rules get us along the best. Everyone-"
  2294. > A glance is shot at Kalendae.
  2295. "-plays by the same rules. So next time, think hard before you open that beak of yours, or you'll be off this project. And I don't think Whitworth would like it if you got yourself kicked out."
  2296. > Whether you could actually get Gerard removed isn't something you're totally sure of.
  2297. > He rocks back on his hindlegs, though, clicking his beak in what you assume is a note of acceptance.
  2298. > So, at least he seems to be taking the threat seriously.
  2299. "Now get out of here. And think hard!"
  2300. > When Gerard is out of view, you turn at last to Kalendae.
  2301. > Dealing with the griffon had been tough. but this...
  2302. > This would hurt.
  2303. "So. You saw this going down, and your first instinct was to strike him."
  2304. > Just as you'd expected, Kalendae raises her head proudly - muzzle high, back rigid, eyes locked forward.
  2305. > Exactly as they'd drilled into her.
  2306. > "Would you have me not strike one who is assaulting a pony, My Captain? Is this not our duty?"
  2307. > Our duty.
  2308. > As guards.
  2309.  
  2310. > You wish it were still that simple.
  2311. "That's not my point, Kalendae. My problem is that it was your first instinct to leap into battle."
  2312. > Falling back on your haunches, you stare at her evenly.
  2313. > Come on - you're not an enemy, you're trying to help!
  2314. "Look - I'm betting you were just waiting for this, Kalendae. Just a matter of time, huh? You must've been waiting every second for him to lash out."
  2315. > Slitted eyes bob as she nods in agreement.
  2316. > "But I think, My Captain, that you do not agree?"
  2317. "...right about that, Kalendae. Look you can't just be - be looking to start fights. I don't know how the Night Guard did it, but we didn't look to pick a fight - even if it seemed likely."
  2318. > "Perhaps that is the difference, My Captain."
  2319. > Kalendae shuffles her wings, as though this distinction bothers her.
  2320. > "We of the Night Guard were always vigilant. If a threat was known, we waited in the Moon Mistress' sheltering darkness for the moment it revealed itself."
  2321. > Yeah, rumor had always been ambush and sneaky stuff.
  2322. > You'd chalked it up to mostly superstition, since the Night Guards you had worked with were a decent bunch.
  2323. "I know, Kalendae. But I bet you made sure something was a threat and not just a fleeting shadow before you jumped at it, huh?"
  2324. > She frowns - an expression that reveals the white tips of her pointed teeth.
  2325. > "The griffon would have struck Bell Curve."
  2326. "But not hurt him. Because of all the things I think Gerard is, stupid isn't one of them. He knows if he actually injured another crewpony? He'd be out in a second."
  2327. > Kalendae's tail lashes angrily.
  2328. > "Is this the distinction we draw now? To not stop evil until somepony is hurt?"
  2329. > You don't like that tone - or how her nostrils are flaring.
  2330. > She wants to make this a fight too.
  2331. "In this situation, Kalendae? Yes. It is. You yell. You get up close to him. But you do not start a fight, because here you were the one who got baited into starting something, not Gerard. Am I understood?"
  2332.  
  2333. > Words form on her lips, but she swallows them before they can come.
  2334. > "...yes, My Captain."
  2335. > Though you don't think that's the end of this - not one bit.
  2336.  
  2337. --------
  2338.  
  2339. “Auxiliary power units status?”
  2340. > “APU one starting… APU two starting.”
  2341. > From somewhere further back in the plane, the muted rumble of the little two-cylinder engines rising into a distant whine.
  2342. > “APUs are up. We’re on onboard power. Starting engine one…”
  2343. > Despite the heavy headset over your ears, you can feel them try to flatten themselves against your skull as the auxiliary engines whine was overwhelmed by coughing roar of the wing mounted ones.
  2344. > This was the part you always hated the most:
  2345. > Being caught on the ground, surrounded by the roar of the engines - four, in this monster of a plane! - with nowhere to go except waiting and resisting every urge to spread your wings and just fly.
  2346. > “Main engines are up. Hydraulic pressure is good.”
  2347. > “They’re pushing us into the water. Easy now…”
  2348. > Eight weeks of training and practice had lead up to this:
  2349. > Your first attempt at flying the plane without one of the veteran crew in the pilot’s seat.
  2350. > Oh, to be sure they were still there - Renaud crouched just behind your seat, Alicia in her spot at the engineer’s station with Gerard helping, and Terry in the back of the plane with the small auxiliary engines.
  2351. > But that didn’t mean you weren’t a little tense anyhow.
  2352. > Trust your instincts, you suppose.
  2353. > “Hitting the water!”
  2354. > There was a little lurch as the rolling carriage the plane rode on for maintenance had run down far enough to touch the water’s surface.
  2355. > At least Anonymous was there in the seat next to you.
  2356. > A familiar face somehow meant more than the many long hours you’d spent practicing with them all.
  2357. “Feels like we’re clear of the carriage?”
  2358. > You can’t help but glance back at Renaud.
  2359. > He gives a fractional affirmative nod, and you say it again with rather more courage:
  2360. “Free of the carriage and floating. Ready for throttle-up to taxi.”
  2361. > “Throttling up.”
  2362.  
  2363. > The engines’ roar rose, and a little ripple went down your spine as the plane accelerated out into the lake.
  2364. > It wasn’t flying free, or even like pushing a cloud around.
  2365. > But the sensation of movement was enough.
  2366. > “Throttles up, taxiing out. Navigator?”
  2367. > “Turn to 2-2-5 at six-hundred fifty feet.”
  2368. > Gerard’s raspy voice sounds odd, coming from the speaker pressed straight up to your ear.
  2369. “Turn to heading two-two-five at two hundred meters, copy.”
  2370. > Anonymous works the throttles at the designated point, yawing the plane in the water.
  2371. > You catch a glimpse of his own plane, still tied up at its buoy as you pass it.
  2372. > Did planes get jealous, you wondered?
  2373. > Like seeing your coltfriend out with a prettier, faster, better mare?
  2374. > You didn’t think so, but magic could do stranger things...
  2375. > “Next, turn to 2-7-0 at twelve hundred feet.”
  2376. 2-7-0 at twelve hundred, copy.”
  2377. > The turn is made and - engines roaring and straining - the plane becomes airborne.
  2378. > You nudge the control yoke, hooves slotted into the custom slipper-like grips they had added.
  2379. “...I still can’t believe how light a touch this plane has. It’s massive!”
  2380. > “That’s the power of hydraulics. I can’t believe you manage that old clunker with nothing but wires.”
  2381. > Renaud’s comment draws a little grin from you.
  2382. “We manage by not being wimps! Anyway, Gerard - you’re navigating. I think you have a number of points for us to take?”
  2383. > “I was wondering whether you were going to ask. Come to 12,000 feet and put us heading due south - one eight three.”
  2384. > You roll your eyes,
  2385. > “Head one eight three, copy.”
  2386. > Thank Celestia for Anonymous.
  2387. > Nudging the wheel into a shallow turn - it still feels heavy compared to this - you put the monstrous Mars aircraft into a shallow turn.
  2388. > What follows is a dizzying list of waypoints to follow - some found by dead-reckoning, some by tracking radio beacons.
  2389.  
  2390. > For Gerard, it was practice navigating using methods he’d likely never used before coming here.
  2391. > For yourself and Anonymous, practice handling the plane.
  2392. > At one point Renaud simulates an-engine out - shutting down one of the four thundering machines and demanding you guide Alicia through dealing with it.
  2393. > She, at least, holds on her end of her agreement with you.
  2394. > Nothing less than total professional courtesy is given to you, though not a hint of warmth is to be found.
  2395. > Well, you can deal with that.
  2396. > By the time you touch down for the eight time in the day - Renaud had been putting his crew, then you through touch-and-go landings and takeoffs - you’re aching and exhausted.
  2397. > This was the kind of training you hadn’t put yourself through since your Wonderbolt days.
  2398. > Except that had involved constant movement until your whole body screamed for a break; this constant being seated in place made your wings itch for movement.
  2399. > Craning your head back, you find Renaud and give him a wave of your hoof.
  2400. “Requesting permission to do a little egress practice?”
  2401. > “A jump? Yeah, we’ll get some speed on the lake and you can hop out. Take the others.”
  2402. > Renaud takes your place in the copilot’s seat, and you can’t help putting a little spring in your step as you hop down the stairs to the lower deck.
  2403. > Gerard and Kalendae follow you down into the nose compartment; the Mars’ nose is far more open than the tight, claustrophobic space of your own Giselle.
  2404. > Something for which you are tremendously grateful for, and suspect all of the others are too.
  2405. > But it also means the exterior hatch is too large for you to open alone.
  2406. “Gerard, give me a hoof would you?”
  2407. > He grunts rather than gives a real answer, but you need those claws:
  2408. > Undoing dog-latches as you plug your headset into the intercomm port.
  2409. “Anonymous, we’ve got the nose hatch cracked open.”
  2410. > “Affirmative. We’re picking up some speed, standbye.”
  2411.  
  2412. > “You’re going to want to watch out when you open it, Spitfire. It’s further up than on your plane, and spray can wash in.”
  2413. “Got it, Renaud.”
  2414. > Not that you’ll tell Gerard that!
  2415. “Okay everyone - it’s just like we’ve been practicing! Remember - climb hard, climb fast; a good leap will clear you of the airplane, but you still want to get above the turbulence.”
  2416. > “Okay, we’re at speed. Open it!”
  2417. “Gerard, open it!”
  2418. > He does, heaving the hatch free of its mountings and aside.
  2419. > There hasn’t quite been time for him to turn back when a burst of lake-water spray floods in and promptly drenches him - and Kalendae.
  2420. > You feel a pang of regret; a leader should not delight in letting a subordinate be humiliated.
  2421. > But leader or not you can’t deny a fair bit of satisfaction at seeing him yelp and jump back, then squawk ruefully and shake himself dry.
  2422. “Go, now!”
  2423. > Despite being soaked, Gerard needs no further urging.
  2424. > He is up and through the hatch in a second, powerful feline hindquarters propelling him up and clear.
  2425. > Kalendae is next, but at the last second - halfway through the hatch - she stumbles as the light strikes her eyes.
  2426. “Hold!”
  2427. > Too late.
  2428. > One ear turns to you but Kalendae gathers herself again and leaps from the open hatch. spreading her membranous wings to peel up and to safety.
  2429. > Your lips twist into a grimace; a fumble would be bad, but for her to ignore you…
  2430. “Cockpit, we had a fumble. Do we still have room?”
  2431. > “If you’re fast!”
  2432. “Do you even remember who I am?!”
  2433. > There’s more bite to your voice than you’d meant.
  2434. > He doesn’t comment on it - taking off through the hatch with you close behind.
  2435. > In the air you find both of them plus yourself stacked in a slow circle, a rising thermal over the edge of the lake where the cool lake-air touched the summer-sun baked ground.
  2436.  
  2437. > Increasingly far below, the Mars’ engines turn down from a regular roar to a lower rumble as it slides into a curving turn that brings it up to a buoy.
  2438. > Spending a few more minutes on your own wings is safe, you decide.
  2439. > Stretch them a little bit after so many hours trapped in a seat.
  2440. > Some time about when a boat carrying the rest of the crew reaches shore, you give a warbling cry - something halfway between a raptor and seabird - and turn towards it as well.
  2441. > The other two fall in line behind you.
  2442. > Flaring your wings, you bleed some speed to fall in alongside Kalendae.
  2443. “When we get back, you and I talk.”
  2444. > There’s no sign of acknowledgement but for a twitch of one tufted ear.
  2445. > But while Gerard touches down, you climb again with her following close behind.
  2446. > Just like with Gerard, the woods seem a good place to have a quiet conversation.
  2447. > Plus, the sunlight streaming in is reduced to a light dapple that is probably easier on the thestral mare’s eyes.
  2448. > You spin in place and jab out with a hoof as soon as your hooves touch earth, even before she has landed too.
  2449. “I know you heard my call to hold back there.”
  2450. > Kalendae folds her wings and regards you through half-closed eyes.
  2451. > “...yes, Captain. I did.”
  2452. “But you still jumped.”
  2453. > “I could still make it.”
  2454. “What if you couldn’t? What if the plane had to turn, or if they were speeding up?”
  2455. > You fall back on your haunches and give her your harshest and sharpest glare.
  2456. “I’m not your captain, but if I’m the one with the line up to the cockpit you need to listen to me. Your life could depend on it - that’s a lot of metal moving very quickly. If you tumble while taking off and hit the hull or go into a propeller…”
  2457. > Celestia, please don’t let that happen.
  2458. > “But I did not. Because I knew I could make it still - this time.”
  2459. “You didn’t know, you believed. You’d never taken off from a moving plane before.”
  2460.  
  2461. > For a moment she looks like she is going to continue the argument:
  2462. > Ears laid flat and webbed wings twitching.
  2463. > Then she just lets her breath out in one great, heavy sigh.
  2464. > “Captain. Why do you distrust my judgement?”
  2465. > You’re taken aback; where did she get that from?
  2466. “I don’t distrust your judgement-”
  2467. > “You do. I tell you that I knew - not guessed, not questioned, knew - that I could make that leap. But you do not trust me.”
  2468. > She steps forward, eyes narrowed to orange slits.
  2469. > “Perhaps your Wonderbolts were not this way, but in the Night Guard we trusted each other completely. We had to. We were a small force; we could not afford mistrust.”
  2470. “We were the same. You couldn't just drill formations into a Wonderbolt. You had to trust in their skill as well.”
  2471. > “Then why do you not trust me?”
  2472. > Taking a step back - physically and mentally - you try and pull yourself as far from the situation and view it objectively.
  2473. > Did you distrust her?
  2474. > No - you were certain she could make that jump
  2475. > If the plane were sitting still.
  2476. > Spray were not splashing up into her…
  2477. > It was the totality of the situation you weren’t sure she was aware of.
  2478. > ...but in the end, wasn’t that a kind of questioning her judgement?
  2479. > If a pony dived for a cloud, not realizing it was a heavy with charge and just waiting for a good kick to unleash lightning, wouldn’t you question their judgement?
  2480. > Why were you coming down so hard on her?
  2481. > Was it that she had undermined your leadership?
  2482. > Celestia above - this is why you aren’t sure you’re ready for this!
  2483. “...okay.”
  2484. > A hefty huff puffs out of your flared nostrils as you force your wings down (gee, Spitfire. Restless wings. Yeah, you were definitely getting ready to puff up at her!) and tail to stop lashing.
  2485.  
  2486. “Okay. I - I admit I did question your judgement. I’ll admit that. But if I did, I did it because this isn't like jumping off a cloud. The thing we’re riding in, the people controlling it - they’re part of our team too. And you can’t just blow them off. That’s part of judgement too.”
  2487. > Kalendae cocks her head.
  2488. > “Is this so different from operations off of airships? You forget, we used those at times too.”
  2489. > So different?
  2490. > Of course it’s different; you’d have to be blind and deaf not to know the difference!
  2491. “Tartarus’ chains - what is this, Kalendae? Why are you angry at me?”
  2492. > “Are you our owner, or our comrade, Captain?”
  2493. “What do you mean?”
  2494. > She considers a moment, then flicks an ear.
  2495. > “When we arrived, you said we were to be a team. But you treat us like foals now. Things to be watched over. To be - coddled. Or commanded. Like your property.”
  2496. > As she vents, her accent makes a slight comeback - twisting the edges of some words with some exotic timbre.
  2497. > “Do you think I know I did not notice that I stumbled? I would have recognized this, and known not to do it in the future. I can manage without being corrected as a foal would.”
  2498. > Your ears fall now, a prickle running down your spine.
  2499. “No. That’s not all this is, Kalendae. Is it Gerard? Not wanting to be shown up in front of him?”
  2500. > Her wingtips twitch, and you nod at the confirmation of your point.
  2501. “I know he’s - not a friend, to say the least. But he’s not going away either, Kalendae, and it’s beneath both of us to do foolish things just to avoid being shown up in front of him.”
  2502. > “That - vulture is no less a foe than a Timberwolf is. He will bite us. The moment it serves him, he will bite us. What, are you taking his side again? Are you going to have me ‘punished’? Flog me?”
  2503.  
  2504. > Your lips twist into a snarl.
  2505. “I will never, ever lift a whip against you… but that’s not the point. Regardless of whether he will bite or not, you need to listen to my orders when I give one. Because these planes are bigger and faster and more dangerous than any airship could ever be. So when I say hold - you damn well hold like Nightmare Moon herself has hold of your tail.”
  2506. > You regret the words the second you speak them, but by then it is already far too late.
  2507. > Baring her teeth makes Kalendae’s muzzle scrunch up in a mess of wrinkles as her ears pin flat and wings snap out.
  2508. > “You shall not sully the Night Mother’s name by speaking of that - that thing!”
  2509. > She hisses the words out, dropping into a low position ready to pounce.
  2510. “Kalendae, I - I apologize. I didn’t mean to -”
  2511. > “I know you did not mean to. Just like you did not mean to question my judgement. But you did still. This - impulsiveness is beneath you, Captain.”
  2512. > The title is spat; your wings pop out in anger-
  2513. > Kalendae freezes and so do you.
  2514. > A mere glance between the two of you confirms it:
  2515. > She had heard the movement too.
  2516. > Somewhere close, somewhere nearby.
  2517. > Wildlife?
  2518. > This wasn’t exactly the most urban environment; you wouldn’t be surprised to find a few foxes wandering about…
  2519. “Do you see it?”
  2520. > Your whispered question draws a shake of Kalendae’s head.
  2521. > She is doing her best to blend into the shadow of a tree - scrunching down to camouflage herself amid its shaded roots.
  2522. > Your vibrant coat offers no such opportunities.
  2523. > Instead you let your eyes roam over the forest, looking for-
  2524. > All at once something large and winged erupts from behind a fallen trunk:
  2525. > Broad wings spreading to beat once, twice, as they pass over your head.
  2526. > A pegasus!
  2527. > The sun occluded behind them keeps any color from being discerned, but very definitely a pegasus.
  2528. “Wait!”
  2529.  
  2530. > You’re already in the air, wings beating hard build the velocity you’ll need to catch them.
  2531. > Kalendae is somewhere behind; she might have the reflexes, but not your raw speed.
  2532. > Amid the forest it is hard to keep eyes on your prey, however.
  2533. > They weave and dodge through trees - not the fastest flyer at all, but putting their maneuverability to good use.
  2534. “It’s okay! I’m not going to-”
  2535. > Coming around a particularly dense thicket of pines, you find the air unexpectedly clear ahead.
  2536. > No pegasus to pursue.
  2537. “-hurt… you?”
  2538. > You spin in place, swearing.
  2539. > Vanished!
  2540. > Were they an escaped pony?
  2541. > Certainly it wasn’t any you recognized.
  2542. > Kalendae touches down nearby, her own ears searching and eyes so wide they almost don’t look slitted anymore.
  2543. > At last she admits defeat with a huff.
  2544. “Kalendae-”
  2545. > “I cannot hear them either. Nor see, though that is the fault of this blasted sun.”
  2546. > Squinting now, her pupils have dropped back to narrowed slits.
  2547. > Circling the thicket twice, you touch down again with a grumble.
  2548. > Though Kalendae notices it with a smirk she does not berate you over it.
  2549. > On the contrary, her words are soothing.
  2550. > “It is not your fault. Neither my senses nor your wings could catch them. A masterful flyer, I think.”
  2551. “Right.”
  2552. > Tucking your wings back down, you turn to face her.
  2553. “Kalendae - I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to insult Princess Luna. I… I snapped too, and that’s my failure.”
  2554. > “Hmm.”
  2555. > Eyeing you askance, Kalendae grunts.
  2556. > “There is something more to this for you as well, My Captain. You are not so un-troubled as you think. It leads you to think like one of them. Like - an owner.”
  2557. > You freeze.
  2558. > This wasn’t about you.
  2559. > But neither was she wrong.
  2560. “...I am - worried sometimes, Kalendae. But I’m already talking to someone about it. You should consider doing the same. We all need an outlet.”
  2561. > “With your ‘master’, yes.”
  2562.  
  2563.  
  2564. “With my captain. That’s what he is to me.”
  2565. > “Hmm. Perhaps that is why you think so much like them now.”
  2566. > Is that an insult?
  2567. > You’re fairly sure it’s an insult, but Kalendae rarely seems to say anything straightforward.
  2568. > And right now snapping at her would only make things worse.
  2569. “Let me tell you something, Kalendae. A long time ago, I realized I’d forgotten something. Slaves - we don’t get to have hopes. We have opportunities. We take what we can get, but we always have to be ready for life to rip it away from us again.”
  2570. > “What are you saying?”
  2571. “What I’m saying is, I have to be a hard-ass - as a human would say.”
  2572. > “What do donkeys have to do with it?”
  2573. “Y’know, I’ve never figured that out either. Point is, I have to think about every risk. Because right now, what we have is an opportunity - an opportunity for ponies to be free, including ponies who wouldn’t have another chance. Like you. But I need to make sure this happens, or it’s all for nothing.”
  2574. > “This is why you have been searching for a replacement for Cog Whirl, yes?”
  2575. > Your ears lay flat.
  2576. > Those searches were supposed to have been done in private apart from Anonymous.
  2577. > Bad enough that you had to put yourself through that...
  2578. “Yes, that’s why. Because if he… doesn’t work, well then I’m sorry. But I need another.”
  2579. > Not that you’d had much luck yet.
  2580. > Desperate searching had basically confirmed what Thomas said:
  2581. > Engineering-talented ponies were in high demand, and the odds of finding another at anything Whitworth would approve were… low.
  2582. > But what were the odds of finding another human engineer either?
  2583. “You can hate me for that, Kalendae. It sickens me enough. But I don’t think I have another choice. If I don’t, I might lose everypony here. I might lose you.”
  2584. > Some kind of retort or bitterness thrown back at you was expected, but instead Kalendae turns her head aside - tail swishing lightly.
  2585.  
  2586. “...Thank you. And, if there is something that is troubling you, I want you to talk to me. Or one of the other ponies, if that would make you feel better. Just… somepony. Don’t be alone. That’s one thing we ponies do have right now, and shouldn’t ever let go of.”
  2587. > “I think you already know what troubles me. But… I will speak up if something else rises.”
  2588. > Head bowed in something of a contrite expression, she adds more softly:
  2589. > “And - I will not let the vulture make me act, no matter how much my wings itch at the sight of him.”
  2590. “Thank you.”
  2591. > The flight back to the facility’s edge is not quite friendly; there is still a heavy, tense silence in the air between you and her.
  2592. > But perhaps it is a little less tense than it had been before.
  2593.  
  2594. --------
  2595.  
  2596. > Cloud Patch’s funeral doesn’t amount to much.
  2597. > They’d cremated him.
  2598. > Not the Earth Pony way; they were usually buried beneath a newly-planted tree, if you remembered correctly.
  2599. > But few places would accept a pony for burial, and none of them close.
  2600. > So instead of a body, there was a canister.
  2601. > Lowered into a small hole at the edge of the airbase, with a small, cheaply-done plaque laid over it.
  2602. > It’s nothing like what a proper funeral should have been, though Bell Curve at least brings a spray of wildflowers he’d found nearby to plant over the grave.
  2603. > At least everyone was here.
  2604. > A few spoke, but you’d only known him for what - a few weeks?
  2605. > There wasn’t much to be said about his past, except for what he’d told you.
  2606. > You don’t say much else either.
  2607. > Accident or not, there’s still a corner of your mind saying this was your fault.
  2608. > You’d brought him here.
  2609. > To a shady little forested hillside on the edge of a lake - a place many Earth Ponies would love to live out their lives.
  2610. > But also to being buried in a land farthest away from Equestria that was possible, never having been free again.
  2611. > A painful hiccup - an aborted laugh, strange as that seems - bubbles up through your throat.
  2612. > He was free now, wasn’t it?”
  2613. > Free to rejoin the winds.
  2614. > Stepping forward, you bow your head down to press your muzzle to the ground.
  2615. > Your legs fold, dropping your belly to the cool forest floor.
  2616. “M’sorry, Cloud Patch. You should have been free. Should have been able to go home. Luck or not, it’s not right.”
  2617. > Eventually the others seem to get that nothing more is going to happen.
  2618. > Bell Curve and Logic Gate both step over, briefly nuzzling your neck before departing.
  2619. > Some of Thomas’ team simply wander off.
  2620. > Kalendae remains, at rigid attention and eyes straight forward.
  2621. > Was this her way of coping, you wondered…?
  2622. > A hand touches your shoulder.
  2623. > Anonymous, some papers clutched in his hand.
  2624. “Wha-”
  2625.  
  2626. > You cough, clear your throat, try again.
  2627. “What is it?”
  2628. > “I… I don’t know if it matters, but I signed off on the papers and submitted them. Cloud Patch wa- is a free pony.”
  2629. > A bolt of pure anger flashes through you; hadn’t he learned anything?
  2630. > Did he seriously think a gesture like that would make up for what had been done to Cloud?
  2631. > Anonymous flinches back, and that anger fades quickly.
  2632. > Of course he didn’t.
  2633. > But he was doing what he could.
  2634. “Just… just leave them here.”
  2635. > He looks about ready to ask where, but just tucks them beneath your side before retreating.
  2636. > You’re thankful for that.
  2637. “...guess you are free now, huh Cloud? Free to ride the winds until you find the Great Herd -”
  2638. > No, wait.
  2639. > That was a pegasus thing.
  2640. > Did Earth Ponies believe in that?
  2641. > Damn, you’ve always been terrible at funerals.
  2642. > Always had one of the other ‘bolts help you write them down ahead of time.
  2643. “You should have been flying with us instead, then walking home. Should have died without a collar on your neck.”
  2644. > It feels like there should be more words.
  2645. > Something better to say.
  2646. > Nothing comes to your lips.
  2647. > When you look up again, all that’s left are yourself and Kalendae; the Thestral mare relaxes and walks to your side.
  2648. > “He would not blame you, My Captain.”
  2649. > You blink through bleary eyes.
  2650. > Was this - support?
  2651. > From Kalendae?
  2652. > Perhaps sensing your despair, she extends a leathery, webbed wing over your back.
  2653. > “I have quarrels with you, My Captain, but this is not one of them.”
  2654. “Kalendae… how did you deal with it when you - lost ponies under your command?”
  2655. > “I drove the rest twice as hard to ensure they would never fail.”
  2656. > That sounds about right.
  2657. > Standing up, you give one final look back to the little plastic plack.
  2658. > One last look.
  2659. > Then, you turn to face forward again.
  2660. > Neither you nor Anonymous were invited to Terry’s funeral.
  2661.  
  2662. --------
  2663.  
  2664. > Cog Whirl turns up two days later.
  2665.  
  2666. > Which is to say, you’re present to watch two men try to drag a near-limp unicorn out of the back of a van and onto the concrete pavement:
  2667. > A ball of tan fur with a white shock of mane and tail, both clipped close.
  2668. > On most other days, you’re have been more concerned by how they toss him around.
  2669. > Now?
  2670. > Well, it’d be a lie to say that you weren’t concerned by his state, but their rough handling was the least of those worries.
  2671. > First off there’s the smell:
  2672. > You first catch a whiff of it on approach - not the particular scent of fear, anger, or arousal but a general kind of stale, worked-out stallion smell.
  2673. > A familiar one; the Wonderbolts’ locker rooms had reeked of it no matter how good a high-altitude breeze was pushed through it.
  2674. > Like it had actually managed to soak into the cloudstuff itself.
  2675. > But why here?
  2676. > Sure, it was a warmer day - but he’d just been riding in a van, right?
  2677. > Walking up to the pony, you gently nudge his eye open with a wing.
  2678. > An unfocused green iris peers back at you.
  2679. “Cog Whirl?”
  2680. > “Mhuruuuh?”
  2681. > Beside you, Logic Gate leans in to examine his exposed pupil.
  2682. > “Cog, can you hear me?”
  2683. > “Yeah, I’ma… hol’ on… I’ma gettup -”
  2684. > He tries, and manages - though not without some stumbling.
  2685. > “See? M’up. M’fine, Misses…”
  2686. > Cog Whirl isn’t looking at either of you, though.
  2687. > Huffing heavily, Logic lashes her tail.
  2688. > “Lozzies. You idiots, you gave him another one!”
  2689. > “We didn’t know it was-”
  2690. > You mentally tune them out.
  2691. “C’mon, Cog. I’m going to take you to a room.”
  2692. > “S’cool. Follow me.”
  2693. “No, you follow me.”
  2694. > “...’kay.”
  2695. > Even his voice seems distant, and after a few steps you realize he isn’t even following in the right direction.
  2696. “Okay, you know what?”
  2697. > A flick of your tail bats it against his cheek.
  2698. “Grab ahold of this and just follow where I pull. Got it?”
  2699.  
  2700. > On the next flick he at least manages to get a good grip in his mouth, and is coherent enough to follow on that.
  2701. > Having your tail be pulled constantly this way and that isn’t a fun experience, but far better than shepherding a constantly-straying kitten of a stallion.
  2702. > Cog even manages to make it up the steps into the housing trailer without too much stumbling.
  2703. > It’d already been thoroughly scrubbed any sign of Cloud Patch’s passing:
  2704. > Towels replaced, bed remade as if new, everything wiped spotless.
  2705. > Even his scent was gone, washed away beneath a tide of chemical odor.
  2706. > Into this Cog Whirl lurches, releases your tail, and promptly looks around with unfocused eyes then collapses on the nearest chair without ceremony.
  2707. > “I’ma sit down now, m’kay?”
  2708. > A flash of anger sputters through you.
  2709. > He didn’t even know where he was!
  2710. > ...that fades a moment later:
  2711. > It wasn’t his fault they’d addicted him to the damn drug.
  2712. > And if you felt this way, imagine how Alicia must be feeling...
  2713. “Okay, Cog. How long ago did they give you the Lozzie?”
  2714. > “Th’wha?”
  2715. “The drug, Cog Whirl. The pill.”
  2716. > “...few hours?”
  2717. > He giggles softly.
  2718. > “Had t’play with ‘em for it. Bargain. No sense of fun.”
  2719. > And of course, they had given it to him.
  2720. > Idiots.
  2721. “Cog. We’re going to have you working. That means we can’t have you like… this. Do you understand? We need your talent.”
  2722. > “That’s me, yeah. One talented pony.”
  2723. > He attempts to roll onto his back, but only succeeds at rolling off the chair onto the floor.
  2724. > There he stares up at you with a vacant grin.
  2725. > Luna forsake it all - how much had they given him?!
  2726. “That means we’re going to need you off this stuff, Cog. You’re not thinking straight right now.”
  2727. > “No.”
  2728. > There’s a surprising amount of force left in that voice - a surprising amount of clarity.
  2729. > Cog Whirl still isn’t looking at you, and in fact his eyes are all but closed.
  2730.  
  2731. > “Don’t you dare take this ‘way from me, whoever y’are. I’ll work, but I’ll make your life Tartarus-bad.”
  2732. “You try that on any other owner, Cog? They’d whip you good.”
  2733. > “They did.”
  2734. > He gives a little wiggle of one hoof in mid-air.
  2735. > “Turns out, y’can stand for a lot if it all goes ‘way when they finally give y’the good shit.”
  2736. “You’re not lucid right now, Cog.”
  2737. > “I know. Isn’it great?”
  2738. “No, it’s not. Look at you! You’re burning your brain out, when we need you. If you work with us, ponies could be free. Free, Cog - do you know what that means to them? What would it mean to you?”
  2739. > The stallion rolls back over to look at you.
  2740. > And for one, brief moment you see lucidity in those eyes.
  2741. > What you find in that moment shakes you deeply:
  2742. > In Fire Streak, you’d found a pony broken - willing to give up on the dream of freedom to exist comfortably of servitude.
  2743. > In Cog Whirl, you saw a pony crushed beneath unfathomable pain:
  2744. > No longer desiring to even exist in this world.
  2745. > Not in any sane fashion, anyhow.
  2746. > “What would it mean to me? Nothing, sweetie. No - less than nothing. It means I get to drag out a living scraping by on the crap that’s left behind. Here, or Equestria. Doesn’t matter. Nothing left there anyway.”
  2747. > He rolls the rest of the way onto his belly.
  2748. > “Fuck that. I like dreaming.”
  2749. > You just stand for a minute or so after that.
  2750. > What can you say to a pony like him?
  2751. > You step to his side, leaning down to nuzzle his mane.
  2752. “...my name’s Spitfire. And you smell awful, Cog Whirl. Go take a shower.”
  2753. > “I know. Th’drug makes me sweat. Can’t smell it anymore. Can’t smell me anymore.”
  2754. “Well, I can. Go shower, okay?”
  2755. > Water is running before you’re willing to leave.
  2756. > Outside, Logic Gate is waiting.
  2757. > “How bad is he?”
  2758. “Bad. It’s not just the drugs. It’s - well, you’d better go in and see for yourself.”
  2759.  
  2760. > She does, and comes back out a few minutes later with a humbled expression that suggests she is just as shocked by what she found as you were.
  2761. “So. Can he be weaned off it?”
  2762. > “I don’t know, Spitfire.”
  2763. > Her rump lands on the hot pavement with a thud.
  2764. “Well, how bad is it affecting him?”
  2765. > “Can’t say. It doesn’t hit every unicorn the same way. The one time they dosed me, it just made my brain feel - slushy every time I tried to go for my magic. I think he’s on a dose three to four times larger than mine in the first place.”
  2766. > Your ears pin back, half at the deconstruction of any hopes you had that his case could be profiled.
  2767. > And half at the thought of your brain ‘going slushy’ any time you tried to fly.
  2768. “Assuming we take him off of it, how long do you think before the effects fade?”
  2769. > “The drug’s effects? Not long. They gave him a ton, so - seventy-two hours at the most?”
  2770. > Surprise must have shown on your face, because Logic Gate shakes her head.
  2771. > “He’s not physically addicted to it, Spitfire; from what I’ve read, it doesn’t work like that. He’s addicted to the feeling of not having to think about anything.”
  2772. “Yeah, that’s… the impression I got too.”
  2773. > “Ever seen anything like it before?”
  2774. “Not this bad.”
  2775. > “I have. But most ponies don’t have that ‘out’ of getting high off those Tartarus-rotten drugs.”
  2776. > Neither of you have much to say on it after that.
  2777. > Eventually you flop down, resting your chin on the hard, hot pavement.
  2778. “Hey Logic… when this is over and you’re free, where are you going to go back to?”
  2779. > “See if home is still there, first. It was a little village, so maybe it was passed over. Maybe they could use another unicorn helping.”
  2780. “What were you thinking of doing before it all happened?”
  2781.  
  2782. > “Before the sickness and all that? I was hoping to get a place apprenticed to one of the better unicorn universities - Trottingham, Canterlot, or Prestige Peak. Of course, all but the last are closed now… what about you? Where are you going to go back to?”
  2783. “I don’t know. That’s why I didn’t want to stay back in Equestria, when I could easily have flown away. I can’t figure out what’s there for me anymore. This feels like ‘home’ now.”
  2784. > Logic gives a little puff of breath, nodding.
  2785. > “Before, I wanted to go to all the biggest places. Be part of the greatest developments. Now? Spending the rest of my years in quiet peace sounds best.”
  2786. > You nod.
  2787. “Logic… I want to save Cog Whirl.”"
  2788.  
  2789. > “Why?”
  2790. > Why indeed?
  2791. > You don’t have a good answer to give her.
  2792. > No way to explain the voice clamoring for you to stand up and fight for Cog - even if it meant fighting the stallion himself.
  2793. “I don’t know. But maybe it’s part of going home. I can’t settle anywhere when I left my soul back here.”
  2794. > Later that afternoon, you report back to Anonymous.
  2795. > He’s chosen to beat the heat by parking himself in a chair beneath the plane’s belly - his nose buried in another manual booklet.
  2796. > “Hey. How’d it go back there?”
  2797. “Rough. Cog’s in no shape to be working, even when the drugs wear off. Everything that’s happened has made him collapse in on himself.”
  2798. > That gets Anonymous’ proper attention; he lowers the booklet and beckons you over.
  2799. > You take a hesitant glance around - nobody had better see the Captain getting this affection - and submit to his hand scratching at the back of your neck.
  2800. > Ah, Celestia - that felt good!
  2801. > “Depression getting to him?”
  2802. “Yes. Even if we pull him off the drugs, that’s still going to be the real issue.”
  2803. > Anonymous makes a noncommittal noise.
  2804. > “I have to admit, I don’t know. Depression - isn’t a thing I know how to solve easily.”
  2805. “And I don’t think they’re going to want to hire a doctor who can come all the way out here.”
  2806. > Your thoughts turn back to that moment in the strip club.
  2807. > When Barley Brew had talked about running away from things.
  2808. > If she thought you were running, well, she hadn’t seen anything yet.
  2809. > “Spitfire, can I be honest?”
  2810. “You know I prefer it.”
  2811. > He chuckles a little, scratching behind your ear, but his expression quickly turns sour again.
  2812. > “I know you don’t want to - send a pony away. But this one - this one might be beyond what we can do now. Maybe if we had time to build a life, a community, that would help Cog. But for now…?”
  2813. “Yeah.”
  2814. > You huff softly.
  2815.  
  2816. > Sometimes you did wish ponies were more stoic - more like the recruits you’d had in the ‘bolts.
  2817. > But then, they wouldn’t be ponies if they were all like that, were they?
  2818. > How had Gerard put it, that one time right when you first met him?
  2819. > About griffons being better at respecting the ‘hierarchy of things’?
  2820. > Yeah, that wasn’t how most ponies were.
  2821. > Life wasn’t a hierarchy; everypony had their talent and with it their place.
  2822. > That’s why ponies had to be retrained when going into the Wonderbolts, or even the guard in general…
  2823. > Your thoughts trail off, the seed of an idea taking root in your mind.
  2824. > Most ponies weren’t hierarchy-minded, that’s true.
  2825. > And so to lose direction was the worst thing that could happen to them.
  2826. > But some ponies were.
  2827. > And you knew just where to find one.
  2828. > Anonymous looks up as you abruptly slip from his hand.
  2829. “Sorry, just got an idea! Gotta go follow up on it!”
  2830. > “Spitfire, what-”
  2831. > You’re already in the air, wings beating to gain altitude.
  2832. “Can’t wait! Be back later, okay?”
  2833. > Wings carry you up and over the camp bulk of the Mars.
  2834. > Gerard was sunning himself atop the fuselage, and you give him a yell and an enthusiastic wave while passing over.
  2835. “Hey Gerard! Thanks for the advice!”
  2836. > There is a little satisfaction at seeing him jump and cock his head questioningly, beak half-open with surprise..
  2837. > Let him wonder!
  2838. > Dipping back to trade altitude for speed, you coast low over a line of storage sheds and touch down just outside the living trailers.
  2839. > Which one, which one…
  2840. > Ah!
  2841. > Your hoof taps lightly at the door.
  2842. > No one answers the first time, but at the second Kalendae pops her head out of the door - blinking owlishly and shielding her eyes from the sun.
  2843. > “Spitfire? What is this?”
  2844. “Uh - what are you doing right now?”
  2845.  
  2846. > “Resting. I’m not due for another round of training until later, and despite not being vampires we thestrals do prefer to rest under sun and work under moon. I will study after nightfall.”
  2847. > Oh.
  2848. > Well, tough.
  2849. “I need you for a little bit. First to talk, then maybe for you to talk to somepony else.”
  2850. > For a second she seems ready to toss you out, but relents.
  2851. > “I am listening.”
  2852. > You explain Cog Whirl - and the state he had found himself in.
  2853. > With every word Kalendae’s eyes seem to narrow further, and by the end she has them all but squeezed shut.
  2854. > She huffs, nostrils flared, and paws at the trailer’s floor.
  2855. > “A tragedy, I will not deny. This pony has been damned to his own personal Tartarus by these drugs.”
  2856. “Exactly. And I want to pull him out of it.”
  2857. > “He does not seem to desire rescue.”
  2858. “But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Especially you and I.”
  2859. > Kalendae cocks her head, long strands of silver and blue mane drifting to the side.
  2860. “You and I weren’t just ponies, Kalendae. We were guards. That means something.”
  2861. > You lift a hoof, tapping your chest.
  2862. “Me and my Wonderbolts were the prized standard. You are the Night Guard were the quiet shadows. Together we inspired and watched over ponies.”
  2863. > The little speech hadn’t won her over entirely.
  2864. > Caught her attention, though - that it had done, leaving Kalendae with her ears canted forward attentively.
  2865. > Yellow, catlike eyes blink languidly as she ponders it.
  2866. “At least see him, Kalendae. He’s feeling like it’s not worth trying to shake the drugs, because he has nowhere else to be but drifting in them.”
  2867. > “Fine, fine.”
  2868. > She huffs, tongue darting around her teeth.
  2869. > “I see what trap you have laid for me, but I also see no way out of it.”
  2870. “No trap, Kalendae. I’m not lying to you. Come and see him first.”
  2871. > While she goes in, you wait at his door.
  2872. > Yes, you hadn’t lied to Kalendae.
  2873.  
  2874. > Her assessment of your request as a ‘trap’, though, wasn’t entirely off the mark.
  2875. > So far it was only the threat of imperiling other ponies which bound the former Night Guard to this crew - to this team.
  2876. > Giving her something to care about, though?
  2877. > That could win her over more strongly than any threat ever could.
  2878. > Cog Whirl wasn’t the only one who was drifting for lack of anywhere - or anypony - to care about.
  2879. > Kalendae, and even yourself if you were to be fair, saw this only as a demand made by a slaver.
  2880. > The same way you had once seen Anonymous.
  2881. > Maybe this would be the first step in fixing-
  2882. > The door opens, and Kalendae stumbles out.
  2883. > Uncaring about the bright sunlight, she leaps the three steps down from the trailer’s door on spread wings and nearly collapses onto the ground.
  2884. > Well…
  2885. > That was more than you had expected.
  2886. “Kalendae…?”
  2887. > “Γαμήσου την kαθοδήγηση των αστέγων! I… I will manage.”
  2888. > With long, cautious steps - her eyes were still squeezed shut - she makes her way around to the shaded side of the trailer with you following cautiously behind.
  2889. > There she takes another few moments before speaking.
  2890. > “I had thought it was the drugs, the ‘medicine’ they had given him. But no - that stallion is truly lost, isn’t he?”
  2891. “Drifting aimlessly on the winds. He’ll be sucked away forever, if somepony doesn’t do something about it.”
  2892. > If it wasn’t too late already.
  2893. > “I do not disagree. But - why me? What do I offer him, My Captain?”
  2894. “Not you. We. We have to be firmer with him - more forceful. Not bite his head off, but give him enough of a kick that he gets moving again. Starts actually looking around, with his eyes open.”
  2895. > You tilt your head, forcing a half-grin onto it.
  2896.  
  2897. “Gerard was right about one thing: Ponies don’t do rigid hierarchies well. We have to be trained into it. Like you and I were. We can help him like that. I think I’ve still got a little bit of the old drill sergeant in me. What about you?”
  2898. > With agonizing slowness, Kalendae nods.
  2899. > “That, I suppose, would be possible.”
  2900. “Because when this is done - and it will be done - I would like to see him walk away a free pony. Not just without chains, but in his head too.”
  2901. > “It could be said, that we have a duty to do this still.”
  2902. “That’s the spirit.”
  2903. > You extend a wing across Kalendae’s back with a small smile.
  2904. “I don’t say it’ll be easy. We’ll need a little bit longer for the drug to be out of his system, and it’s not going to be fun. In addition to our other duties, we’re going to have to trade off positions making sure he’s staying on the ball. But it can be done, Kalendae.”
  2905. > “It can be done.”
  2906. > She echoes you in an almost dreamy voice.
  2907. “Go get some more rest. I’ll talk a bit more when you’re up later.”
  2908. > You raise, folding your wing back in again.
  2909. > Behind you, Kalendae also turns to head back to her bunk - then suddenly speaks up:
  2910. > “Spitfire!”
  2911. > You look back, head tilted.
  2912. > “She grins.
  2913. > “I am glad to see you being a leader once again.”
  2914. “So am I, Kalendae. So am I.”
  2915. > That is muttered, but you have no doubt the Thestral’s low hearing picked it up anyhow.
  2916. > Later, when night had fallen, Anonymous sits up with you in the Mars’ cockpit doing one last check-over of the most recent entry in the chain of manuals to proceed across your eyes.
  2917. > “...and in Equestria, after every restart we have to do what special step to the navigation system …?”
  2918. “Set the GPS to track mode mode and mute the alarm. Options, system setting, operating modes, no-track. Otherwise it’ll keep crying at us because it can’t find the satellites.”
  2919. > “Good.”
  2920.  
  2921. > Snapping it shut, he looks over at you with a grin.
  2922. > “That’s the end of this one, but I have one last question for you personally.”
  2923. “Hit me.”
  2924. > “Why’d you change your mind on Cog Whirl?”
  2925. > Your head snaps up; that was not the question you’d been expecting.
  2926. “Change my mind?”
  2927. > “...look, when he was introduced, you were - well, I guess you weren’t against him, exactly, but you seemed pretty iffy about it. Now I hear you’re rounding up Kalendae to pitch in helping him get back to himself?”
  2928. > Climbing out of the copilot’s seat, you settle on your haunches beside the pilot’s seat (what a gift it is, a cockpit large enough to do that in!) and lean your head over on the chair’s edge.
  2929. > Sure enough, Anonymous’ hand settles between your ears - rubbing lightly.
  2930. > ...yeah, this was a very welcome side benefit of working with him.
  2931. > “Look, if you want to do this and think there’s a good shot at it, I’m not going to argue.”
  2932. “I dunno. Maybe it’s the same urge that got me to run around getting all those fillies out of Las Vegas.”
  2933. > You shrug your wings, leaning into the chair.
  2934. “Cynically, I guess you could say I’m just giving Kalendae something to do. But - it’s different reading about somepony suffering, and looking into his eyes and seeing a stallion who’s lost every hope, you know?”
  2935. > “He reminds you of your Wonderbolt friend. Fire Streak? The one in Anaheim.”
  2936. > Your uncomfortable squirm draws an acknowledging nod from Anonymous.
  2937. > “It’s okay to be doing it for that reason, Spitfire. I understand. After Edward died, I still don’t let cargo slip by me without being inspected.”
  2938. > As he speaks, you can hear him shift and turn.
  2939. > Even without looking up, you know he’s twisted around to look towards the Mars’ aft.
  2940. “You’re still not happy about that either, are you? Not knowing what exactly they’ve got back there.”
  2941. > One ear twitches at the long, hissing sigh-like noise he makes.
  2942.  
  2943. > “I’m sure that with all the modifications they’ve done, they’ve had some supremely confident engineers in here making sure everything is bolted down well enough. But it still sits wrong me. And you’re changing the topic.”
  2944. > Ugh.
  2945. > Not quite smooth enough to escape the discussion.
  2946. > You look away, but there’s a hand around your withers pulling you back over close against him.
  2947. “Hey, quit that!”
  2948. > “Spitfire-”
  2949. “I said cut it out!”
  2950. > You give him a real shove now - with a hoof, not a wing - and to his credit, Anonymous lets you go.
  2951. > Stumbling a few steps away, you pause.
  2952. > Running away from your problems, again.
  2953. > You come back to his side with eyes cast down.
  2954. > He accepts the unspoken apology - placing a hand on your withers, but not trapping you there.
  2955. > “Spits, I can tell something’s still eating you. I just want to see that to the bottom of things. Is it about Mistral?”
  2956. > The name hits you like a kick in the gut.
  2957. > A kick from the pegasus whose name and face had refused to leave your memory, poking back in at the most inopportune times.
  2958. “...I had to say no, Anonymous. Back then, it was the smartest decision. Get ponies who we know will work. But now that he’s here, now that I’ve seen him-”
  2959. > “-you feel like you have to make it up to her.”
  2960. “Ugh.”
  2961. > You look away, and Anonymous takes the opportunity to put his hand between your ears.
  2962. > One flicks, but otherwise you give no sign of reaction.
  2963. “You’re not getting it. I didn’t want to make those choices. And nothing I can do now will bring her back here.”
  2964. > “But you’re not going to do it again.”
  2965. “...yeah.”
  2966. > You stay there a moment, then perk up again.
  2967. > Time to push past this.
  2968.  
  2969. “Hey, hey. Like you said, don’t worry too much if they’re going nuts over it. Besides, that’s one other reason to keep working on Cog Whirl.”
  2970. > “Oh yeah?”
  2971. > Pulling your head from beneath his hand, you look up at him - catching his one raised eyebrow and matching it with a grin.
  2972. “A pony with a real talent for knowing how machines are working - how they feel - will feel something going wrong a long time before it actually does.”
  2973. > Anonymous grins, his hand generally settling back on your head and ruffling.
  2974. > “Guess that’s so, Spitfire.”
  2975. > If only you knew exactly what trouble the next day would bring.
  2976.  
  2977. --------
  2978.  
  2979. > “You what?!”
  2980. > Alicia’s shriek pins your ears back and to your skull even before you step through the door.
  2981. > “We talked about-”
  2982. > “A fucking pony? You’re replacing Terry with a pony?! No way. Not fucking happening!”
  2983. > “You knew this was happening, it isn’t a surprise.”
  2984. > “I knew that fat fuck Whitworth was going to shove another pony on us, we’d find out he’s useless and send him back to wherever. When the hell did that turn into - this idiotic plan?”
  2985. > “Alicia, please, calm down-”
  2986. > You wince.
  2987. > Renaud might be a good pilot or even crew captain, but he had just made a fatal mistake.
  2988. > The words ‘calm down’ never went well - not unless there was an EUP Guard officer’s uniform backing them up.
  2989. > Yep, sure enough…
  2990. > “Calm down?! When you’re replacing Terry with that - that drug-headed little-”
  2991. > The next few words are thankfully drowned out by the door being flung open with a bang.
  2992. > Alicia storms out, her normally bound-up brown hair whirling around her head in a fan.
  2993. > “-going to have Terry replaced with that fucked-up horse, you’re got another fucking thing coming!”
  2994. > On your one side Anonymous has pulled his hands from his pockets as if expecting to have to leap to defend you; on the other, Kalendae spreads her wings in preparation to take flight.
  2995. > Alicia’s eyes land on you as she turns about, and her nostrils flare in preparation for snapping at you.
  2996. > But she instead completes the turn and stalks off, hands still balled into fists at her side.
  2997. > Well, shit.
  2998. > Stepping into the office, you look between Thomas and Renaud.
  2999. “So… do I want to know?”
  3000. > “If you heard that, I think you pretty much know.”
  3001. > Thomas sighs, pushing himself up out of his seat and running hands through his hair as he paces.
  3002. > “Alicia’s - not taking it well. And while I think she’s overreacting, I wish you’d told me what you were thinking up before you decided on it.”
  3003.  
  3004. “What, tell you before you I decided to try and save a pony from being lost to those drugs?”
  3005. > Squirming in place, Thomas can’t quite force himself to match your eyes.
  3006. > Renaud is still rubbing his forehead, lines migrating across the wrinkled skin as he massages it.
  3007. “...okay, let me explain something to you all. You - you’re used to dealing with employees. Hire them, fire them, treat them like a market.”
  3008. > You find a chair to hop back up on and turn back around to look at them.
  3009. “Funny thing is, we’re the property here… but if you tell me to deal with a pony - or a human - then that means they’re part of my team. They’re my responsibility. That means I don’t play around with them. I don’t take them in just to throw them away because it’s convenient. Did I know Cog would be a pony I could save? No. But I’m still-”
  3010. > A hand on your withers stops you.
  3011. > Anonymous.
  3012. > “They get it, Spitfire.”
  3013. > ...oh.
  3014. > Maybe you had gone a little overboard.
  3015. > Some of the moment’s tension bled into you.
  3016. “Right… sorry. Didn’t mean to…”
  3017. > “It’s fine, Spitfire.”
  3018. > Renaud shoots you a little smile.
  3019. > Unfortunately you still have unfinished business with him.
  3020. “I kind of do have to ask again, though. What’s her issue? I mean, I can understand being upset over losing a teammate, especially after what I just said. But why’s she so upset about Cog being a pony?”
  3021. > Renaud grimaces, but you aren’t giving up.
  3022. > Just as you open your mouth to protest further, Renaud waves a hand to interrupt.
  3023. > “No, no. I just - I don’t know if you going to her with this is going to make it any better.”
  3024. “I promise to hear it out before doing anything. That much, I can give you. Kalendae, you’ll do the same.”
  3025. > The thestral nods curtly.
  3026. > “It will be so, Captain.”
  3027. > Renaud sighs, grumbles, but gives in.
  3028.  
  3029. > “Fine, fine… look, Alicia’s family - their whole town - they were hit by cross-rift raiders. Ponies. Their house got burned down.”
  3030. > Your breath catches.
  3031. > Of course it had been that.
  3032. “Are… did they-”
  3033. > “Die? No. They’re alive. But they’re damn poor. Lost everything. The way she told it, the insurance companies wouldn’t cover what they saw as foreign attack - told them it was the government’s problem. The government was stretched too thin by budget cuts, and they never really got enough.”
  3034. “So she blames us instead.”
  3035. > “Well, Spitfire - it was ponies who lit the fires. She is right about that.”
  3036. > Beside you, Kalendae looks just as - if not more - disgusted than you are.
  3037. “You’re not wrong. That was our fuck-up. Even if it was a handful of ponies, we should have known better-”
  3038. > “And we should have been able to stop them.”
  3039. > Kalendae’s growl carries with it a note of deep bitterness.
  3040. > You can sympathize; as a guard it must have embittered her just as if not more deeply than you.
  3041. > Not only had ponies regressed to their basest, most bitter behavior, but you - the guards of Equestria, the law-keepers of the land - had failed to stop them.
  3042. > “Uh… I don’t mean to interrupt, but Spitfire - who was this all about?”
  3043. > Anonymous had raised his hand questioningly, almost like he was in school.
  3044. “You remember how I’ve told you about how everything - fell apart? With the sicknesses, the infighting, tribal warring, the griffons, and all that?”
  3045. > “Uh-huh?”
  3046. “Well, some ponies… they turned to just grabbing what they could. If there was a rift to this world, they’d use that.”
  3047. > “It was our failing. And when the griffons turned to avenge their old differences with us, they had much to work with.”
  3048. > Huffing angrily, Kalendae seats herself in the corner - wings twitching.
  3049.  
  3050. “And it blew up at them, too. Still - there’s one thing I don’t understand. If Alicia hates us so much, why’d she sign up for a trip that would be taking us to Equestria?”
  3051. > “Oh, that’s easy.”
  3052. > Renaud laughs, although there’s no humor in his voice.
  3053. > “Because she wants to give her family good money. Gregory Whitworth and Thomas here are paying the kind of money you normally only get for being the personal chauffeur to some billionaire’s plane. And since none of us happen to know any billionaires looking for another pilot...”
  3054. > “We hadn’t come up with the pony-crew plan when she signed on.”
  3055. > Thomas doesn’t seem to care about the mention of his name, his eyes somewhere distant.
  3056. > “If we had, I wonder if she would have agreed to this all.”
  3057. “...so what are we doing now? Because I’m sure as Celestia’s sunrise not going to abandon Cog Whirl to being sold off-”
  3058. > Again Anonymous’ hand settles on your shoulder.
  3059. > “Easy, Spitfire. Nobody’s abandoning anyone else.”
  3060. > Renaud pulls his hand away from his head to nod.
  3061. > “I can’t say it would sit well with me either.”
  3062. > “Right, so. Spitfire, Kalendae, you two go right on doing everything you can to get him back on his feet. Hooves. Whichever. If you can save him… I think we’ll be all better for it.”
  3063. > Except Alicia, you added mentally.
  3064. > She wasn’t going to get any better, and that was going to be a problem.
  3065. > Kalendae, however, stands - giving a curt nod.
  3066. > “We will ‘save’ him. You can be certain of that.”
  3067. > Once outside, however, the mask falls away and she is straight back to seething.
  3068. > “Look at them. Look at them! Ready to bring a pony in, expect them to fail, and just toss him away! Those - those mongrel-hided, spawn-of-Tirek, little-”
  3069. “Hey. Hey, I know. You don’t have to tell me.”
  3070. > You aren’t pleased either, but unlike hers your anger has dulled to a low, constant burn.
  3071.  
  3072. > “They did not merely set him up to fail, they set us up too. It is our duty as guards to protect, you and I, and their assignment for us -”
  3073. > Sharp venom in her words suggest that “their order” would be too much for her to acknowledge.
  3074. > “- that we be members of a team. What did they expect?”
  3075. “Look, if you want to be angry at anyone, be angry at this Whitworth guy. He’s the one who got it into his head he was just going to bring another pony in, and pushed the others into it.”
  3076. > Kalendae mutters under her breath in some tongue you don’t recognize, but know the acid-laced tones of profanity.
  3077. “Right now, though, we have to do exactly what we said and try and pick him up out of that hole he’s dug for himself. Anonymous is on our side, and I think Renaud is too. If we can help him, I don’t think they’re going to ”
  3078. > “He did not dig that hole. They put him into it.”
  3079. > Her retort is accompanied by a fierce lashing of the tail.
  3080. > A second later, however, her expression softens.
  3081. > “But you are right, Captain. He needs our help, and we would be failing in our duty if we did not focus on that.”
  3082. “Then come on. Let’s do that.”
  3083. > Unfortunately, Cog is in no position to be learning much of anything.
  3084. > You find him sprawled out on his mattress, dead asleep, surrounded by creased manuals - some tucked under his body.
  3085. “Do you want to wake him, or should I?”
  3086. > “I will.”
  3087. > Kalendae is surprisingly gentle with him - much moreso than the drill-sergeant bellow you had been planning on using.
  3088. > She merely shakes him awake with a hoof:
  3089. > Prompting to Cog Whirl to roll over and stare at you through half-glazed eyes.
  3090. > “Oh, ‘lo again. Wha’s up?”
  3091. “You can’t be sleeping your days away, Cog. You’re already weeks behind us in training; you need to scramble.”
  3092. > “Oh.”
  3093. > He blinks slowly, as if you had just revealed some great wisdom.
  3094.  
  3095. “Come on. I can see you’ve been reading the manuals. We’re going to have to test you-”
  3096. > “Worthless.”
  3097. > You frown at his single-word protest, as does Kalendae.
  3098. > “You are not worthless, Cog. You’re-”
  3099. > “No, the manuals are. Abso-fuckin’-lutely useless.”
  3100. > Rolling right-side up, he sweeps a few of the books from his bed.
  3101. “...I won’t deny they’re a little - dense reading, Cog, but you’re part of a team now. That means you need to put in your part too.”
  3102. > He just laughs, though, and stumbles the rest of the way out of bed.
  3103. > You watch, heart sinking, as he checks his bearings and heads for the bathroom.
  3104. > Water soon begins to run; hoof paused on a sink handle, Cog Whirl looks back at you.
  3105. > “We going to be staying here long?”
  3106. “Only a few weeks. Whether or not you’re ready.”
  3107. > “Good. ‘cause the shutoff valve on this thing is shit. The one down the line. It’s gonna burst pretty soon.”
  3108. > Both you and Kalendae blink in unison.
  3109. > “What?”
  3110. “What?”
  3111. > “The valve. Is. Fucked. Geddit? I can feel - feel it where it’s loose. Probably put together by some poor cunt earning half a buck a day. Or maybe some pony, earning nothing ‘cept a lash across the back. Whattaya bet on that?”
  3112. > Kalendae walks over, placing her hoof on the faucet questioningly.
  3113. > “Go back to the part where you can feel the valve is loose?”
  3114. > “I can feel it. Y’know, in the - the vibrations. Gooood, vibra-a-ations. Goood, vibrations for you…”
  3115. > Neither his sing-song tone nor the little swaying dance Cog puts himself into make anything any clearer to you.
  3116. “How can you know that? You’re still coming off the suppressants.”
  3117. > “I said - vibrations. That’s not magic, that’s Talent. Or maybe Talent are just deep magic, too deep for the pills. I dunno.”
  3118. > He shrugs, lurching back out of the bathroom.
  3119. > “Can feel it. Just like the other machines. Pills don’t touch that, just make all the bad shit go away.”
  3120.  
  3121. > Now you are finally coming to understand how he could survive like this.
  3122. > There’s no way he could wield enough real magic to work, but if he could - sense?
  3123. > Understand?
  3124. > If Cog could diagnose machinery with a touch, he would still be able to negotiate himself… if only into more suppressant doses.
  3125. > You trade looks with Kalendae, but in her golden-slitted eyes you only see a deep sadness and pity.
  3126. > “You waste yourself, Cog Whirl. Why do you accept living a life like this?”
  3127. > “What are you, a therapist?”
  3128. > “I am your friend, I hope. Can you give me that much?”
  3129. > Cog grumbles, but doesn’t protest.
  3130. > “If I work with you, will you dose me?”
  3131. “What?”
  3132. > “The suppressants. If I’m going to be putting in the effort on this, I want it to be worth my while.”
  3133. > You draw back your lips, showing gritted teeth.
  3134. “No. As long as you’re working with me, you’re not trading doses for work. We’re getting you fixed up.”
  3135. > Eyeing you questioningly from beneath his messy shock of white mane, Cog suddenly throws his head back in wide laughter.
  3136. > “What the hell are you? You look like a pony, but you talk like one of - them.”
  3137. > Like a human.
  3138. > Thoughts flick back to what Kalendae had said:
  3139. > You were acting like an owner, not a leader.
  3140. “No. If I were ‘one of them’, I’d be just beating you to make you work because it got me richer. I’m cutting you off because it’s good for you, Cog. Because you’re eating yourself alive doing this.”
  3141. > “Uh-huh. Yeah, y’know, I’ve heard that from them before too.”
  3142. > Giving his head a shaking toss, he turns for the door.
  3143. > “Sooner or later you’ll figure out. You want me to work, you better dose me. Now, where we going?”
  3144.  
  3145. > Getting him out to the Mars requires a brief excursion on a boat, but he handles it admirably.
  3146. > Perhaps you’d been expecting too much, because his first reaction when climbing aboard the monstrous floating plane is to look around questioningly.
  3147. > “We’re going to be stuffed in here? All of us?”
  3148. “Fourteen, total.”
  3149. > “Huh. S’roomy.”
  3150. > You feel slightly cheated.
  3151. > Like he should have been more impressed by it.
  3152. > Despite his continued drug-induced wooziness, Cog Whirl even makes it up the stairs to the cockpit without assistance.
  3153. > The first moment he touches the instrument panel, though…
  3154. > It’s like something entirely new comes over the stallion.
  3155. > A change ripples through Cog Whirl, his eyes falling half-shut in concentration.
  3156. > His hoof grazes the control stick, nudging it and listening to the soft shifting of the push-rods which link it to the control surfaces.
  3157. > “This is… this plane is old. It’s been through a lot.”
  3158. “You can sense that?”
  3159. > “Vibrations, in the metal. Groans. Creeks. I can feel where it’s aching. Some of it feels new, but under it there’s still an old body.”
  3160. > Like you feel the wind when you fly, you suppose.
  3161. > Mostly, though, you’re impressed again by what Cog can discern with just a touch.
  3162. > If he could do all that, why not-
  3163. > As if on command, Cog Whirl tries to turn about and promptly proceeds to stumble over the nearest bulkhead, slamming his muzzle straight into the unyielding floor.
  3164. > Kalendae is at his side in a second, swearing feverishly in a her foreign tongue.
  3165. > “Careful, you must be careful! Let me see your mouth. You could have bit your tongue off there!”
  3166. > “M’fine, I’m fine. Not th’first time… hell, you should be worried about biting your own tongue, fangie!”
  3167. > Muzzle turning right red at the mention of her distinctive dentistry, Kalendae gives a little snarl - but still helps him stand again.
  3168. > All you get from that, is Cog needing to be off those drugs.
  3169.  
  3170. > It doesn’t matter what miracles he can work: If he’s tripping over his own hooves and insulting teammates at a whim, he won’t work.
  3171. > Let alone magic-suppressed…
  3172. “Maybe you should have bit your tongue, if you’re going to be running your mouth like that.”
  3173. > Unfortunately he doesn’t seem to take the hint:
  3174. > Standing himself up and shaking off, turning to the instruments.
  3175. > But that’s okay.
  3176. > You’ll manage.
  3177. > Somehow.
  3178. “I don’t suppose you brought your manuals?”
  3179. > “No? Huh? Why?”
  3180. > A groan escapes your lips.
  3181. > Of course he hadn’t thought to; he was all running on his Talent.
  3182. “Okay. Just… see the console back there? Yeah, that’s going to be your station. Sit there, start taking a look over the controls. We’ll start running down basic flight vocabulary when I get back.”
  3183. > With the suppressants still not purged from his system, he wouldn’t be much use for anything else.
  3184. > ...might not even be good for that, with his mind still clouded.
  3185. > Grumbling, you descend to the lower deck and out onto the waiting dinghy.
  3186. > Kalendae follows a moment later - squinting against the light with a lash of her violet tale.
  3187. > You spread your wings to take off, but hesitate.
  3188. “Kalendae?”
  3189. > “Yes, my captain?”
  3190. “Am I still… y’know-”
  3191. > A hoof scuffs awkwardly at the dinghy’s side.
  3192. “-acting like one of them? Treating them like I’m an - Owner?”
  3193. > She smiles at the question, though, and you’re suddenly aware of how hard your heart had been beating in anticipation of that answer.
  3194. > “Yes, my captain.”
  3195. > Wait, what?!
  3196. “Wait, what?!”
  3197. > “But much less than before. You spoke truthfully - an Owner would not care about him. Only how to extract work from him. And he was wrong to speak to you like that.”
  3198. “...thank you?”
  3199. > “You are most welcome.”
  3200. > Her smile grows, still maintaining its genuine warmth.
  3201.  
  3202. > “I do not hate you, my Captain. We of the night speak freely, as Our princess did.”
  3203. “Well, I appreciate it. Now then, let’s go get those books for him.”
  3204.  
  3205.  
  3206. --------
  3207.  
  3208. > Anonymous had left a window wide open, and with a quick tuck-and-pop of your wings you slip straight through it and brake hard.
  3209. > ...stirring up a veritable whirlwind of loose objects as the gust of your braking fills the trailer.
  3210. > And the sharp bangs of your hooves coming down on the floor are still enough to make Anonymous jump.
  3211. > “God Damn, Spitfire. Warn me next time!”
  3212. “Sorry. I needed something to focus on, though. Something else than what I’ve been working on.”
  3213. > “Cog driving you crazy, huh?”
  3214. “He’s - augh!”
  3215. > You trot in a little circle, tail still lashing.
  3216. “Five days! Five days we’ve been working on him, and he’s just so - that pony has a harder head than some Earth Pony stallions I’ve met, and they were so stubborn we used to joke they had literal earth for brains and rocks for skulls!”
  3217. > Leaping up on the bed, you settle on your haunches and try to get calm and focused again.
  3218. > Come on, Spitfire!
  3219. > This was something you’d done before!
  3220. > All that concentration is lost when Anonymous’ fingers settle on the back of your head and commence a light scratching.
  3221. > Still, though, it does grant relaxation and you coo softly at the touch.
  3222. > “Tell me about him.”
  3223. “He’s smart. Skilled. A real solid cookie. Could’ve gone far, back in Equestria. But he’s also so convinced that he knows how things are, he doesn’t need to know how they work. Probably been coasting on his Talent so long that he’s forgotten what real comprehension is like.”
  3224. > “You seen anything like that before?”
  3225. > A hefty snort is blown from your nostrils.
  3226. “You’d better believe it. Rainbow Dash, a cadet in the Academy. One of the Bearers, in fact. Brave, loyal to a fault, and a damn good flier - but all instinct and daring. No brains or analysis to speak of.”
  3227.  
  3228. > “Could she have gotten in?”
  3229. “On the team? Oh yeah. She had a good shot. Wouldn’t ever make captain, unless she slowed down and started thinking. But she could make it.”
  3230. > “Well, that’s why we’re not going to try and put Cog Whirl in command of anything. Especially not now.”
  3231. > Flopping forward onto your belly, you spread your wings and stretch them out until the tips are falling off the bed.
  3232. > A moment later the bed creaks as Anonymous settles on it, and you feel his fingers stroke the delicate, down-covered leading edges of one wing.
  3233. > Light shudders run through your body as he starts to massage along the flight muscles.
  3234. “Y’know, there’s one thing that makes me just the tiniest bit hopeful about this.”
  3235. > “Hmm?”
  3236. “He’s learning. Oh, he’s dragging his hooves, arguing with us and fighting the whole way… but he’s learning. I think just having someone to care for him is helping.”
  3237. > “Kalendae, you mean.”
  3238. “Yes. And quit rubbing my back like that, you’re going to make me fall asleep.”
  3239. > “Have you considered that you maybe need a rest?”
  3240. > Twisting your head around, you give Anonymous a hefty dose of your stink-eye.
  3241. > All that prompts him to do is scratch your cheek instead of your back.
  3242. > “Sorry, Spits. I think you used up your death-glare reserves working with Cog today.”
  3243. “Damn.”
  3244. > “Seriously, though. Give yourself a rest. You’ve been pushing yourself ever since you decided Cog had to be trained double-time.”
  3245. “I know, I know!”
  3246. > Huffing, you splay out your ears.
  3247. > “I half think it’s that you just don’t want Alicia to ‘win’. That old competitive streak of yours, and all…”
  3248. “Well, I definitely don’t want that witch-”
  3249. > No, that wasn’t fair.
  3250. > Alicia had reason to be angry, even if not at you.
  3251. “-don't want Alicia to force us to give up Cog. But it’s also about him too. Actually, she’s kind of my next problem with him too.”
  3252.  
  3253. > “What do you mean? She’s not chewing him out or anything-”
  3254. “Alicia is the only experienced flight engineer left. We can quiz Cog on the manuals, and his talent can do a lot. But she’s the one who knows how the Mars actually runs. She needs to teach him.”
  3255. > “Hmm.”
  3256. > When Anonymous doesn’t answer immediately, you turn your head back away from him.
  3257. > A second later his fingers settle on your head.
  3258. > “Take a nap, Spitfire. I’m going to go see what they’re microwaving up for dinner tonight.”
  3259. “Oh, microwaved hot pockets and frozen potatoes. I’m thrilled.”
  3260. > He laughs, and the bed creaks as he stands.
  3261. > “No worse than what we were getting for ourselves before all this, Spits. I’ll be back in a bit.”
  3262. > Sleep doesn’t come easily, though.
  3263. > And in the end you push yourself up and turn back out again.
  3264. > You might not have all the answers just yet, but you think there’s someone you can ask.
  3265. > Sure enough, you find Gerard bathing in the last of the day’s sun atop the Mars’ back.
  3266. > He looks up questioningly when you touch down.
  3267. “I wanted to thank you for something.”
  3268. > “To thank? Me?”
  3269. > Stretching luxuriously, Gerard stands and regards you with his one remaining good eye.
  3270. > “This must be an unusual day indeed.”
  3271. “...you’re not going to chase me off with half-spoken insults. I’m serious Gerard.”
  3272. > “I am listening, then.”
  3273. “You mentioned that ponies don’t do well with hierarchies. Well, you were right. And - considering that helped. Not just with Cog Whirl, but Kalendae too. Because she’s used to seeing things like that.”
  3274. > “An admission I was correct. Hmm. You must be trying to get something from me.”
  3275. > You split into a wide grin.
  3276. “Kinda right about that too, but that’s not the only reason. Believe it or not, I am actually trying to be civil with you.”
  3277. > The fan-like ruff of feathers around Gerard’s head wobbles as he bobs it around - as if trying to make sense of your words.
  3278.  
  3279. > “Well, then I suppose I must thank you… but I don’t think you really do understand.”
  3280. “No. I don’t. Or, I understand - and I still don’t think a straight-up hierarchy is the best way for ponies to act.”
  3281. > Gerard’s remaining eye narrows.
  3282. > “What is it you want from this old griffon, filly?”
  3283. > You’ll let that one pass.
  3284. > He was most likely decades older than you, after all...
  3285. “We’re working on getting Cog Whirl back into suitable shape. But Alicia still needs to teach him, and I don’t think she’s willing. Too much anger.”
  3286. > “And you want me to do something about this?”
  3287. “If there’s anything you can, yes.”
  3288. > You settle onto your belly atop the Mars.
  3289. > The warm day has left it surprisingly comfortable.
  3290. “You said you respected Whitworth. And in the hierarchy of things, you’re still beneath him. It’s in his interest to get Alicia to do this for us.”
  3291. > “I fail to see how.”
  3292. “Because, just like you said, ponies aren’t creatures of hierarchy. If Cog fails, it’s going to hit both of us badly. Then you’re down two more critical crew.”
  3293. > “Is that a threat?”
  3294. > You shrug with your wings, a gesture familiar enough to Gerard’s anatomy that he’d understand it.
  3295. “Maybe. Maybe not. We’re not griffons, Gerard. We’re not going to accept the loss of another pony just because he didn’t fit in to some hierarchy someone else put together.”
  3296. > “Unfortunately. And these owners will not be eager to - make you fit.”
  3297. > The look your skewer him with is ample explanation of your thoughts on that idea.
  3298. “You’re lucky they don’t, or this idea would never be getting off the ground in the first place.”
  3299. > “I suppose so.”
  3300. > Clicking his beak, Gerard makes an oddly high trilling noise.
  3301. > “Your arguments hold up. I will try to convince her. Alicia seems to - feel very deeply about ponies, though.”
  3302. “Why, was that tact? Coming from you, about ponies?”
  3303.  
  3304. > He twists his head aside to give the warbling laugh of a griffon.
  3305. > “Do not grow used to it. I am simply amused by your admission of my accuracy, followed so closely by disagreeing with me. You ponies are a contradiction.”
  3306. “I’ll keep it in mind. Alicia’s anger isn’t totally irrational, though. And whatever you do, don’t tell her to ‘calm down’.”
  3307. > “I will keep that in mind.”
  3308.  
  3309. --------
  3310.  
  3311. > The first time Cog Whirl goes up in the plane is a sight to behold.
  3312. > He sits, still to a tail-hair, as the monstrous plane rumbles down the water and claws its way airborne.
  3313. > Not even seeming to notice the awkwardly-shaped for-pony headset mounted on his head.
  3314. > Alicia sits stony-faced beside him at the flight engineer’s station - deigning to allow him to watch her at work.
  3315. > Whatever Gerard had said to her must have been worth something.
  3316. > Unfortunately, Cog seemed far too caught up in the experience to be paying attention to the finer details of her operations.
  3317. > Especially once the keel pulled free of the water.
  3318. > It was almost amusing - you knew many unicorns and earth ponies had to be pulled out of their panic during their first experiences with flight back in Equestria.
  3319. > Just like everything else turned upside-down in this world, Cog would have to be pulled from his indulgence in the experience instead.
  3320. > Today was Kalendae’s turn practicing in the copilot’s seat, leaving you to handle the intransigent stallion.
  3321. “Hey, Cog. C’mon. Wake up and focus. I know that stuff’s out of your system, so focus.”
  3322. > “Sorry, I’m just-”
  3323. > His voice has been given an odd buzzing overlayer by the intercomm system and headsets.
  3324. > “-I can’t get over it. This thing is - every other time I’ve been on a plane, I’ve been in a crate. This is the first time I could really feel…”
  3325. > A hoof stretches out to stroke the console.
  3326. > “...it’s incredible.”
  3327. “Yeah, Cog. But focus now. Remember what we’re here to do. That means eyes on the dials, okay? Watch that oil pressure. No, not that one. That’s the hydraulic pressure.”
  3328. > He does, but only with constant prompting.
  3329. > Down the drugs that had polluted his system, Cog’s shifted into something more worrisome than his previous lethargy:
  3330. > A kind of jittery jumpiness whenever he wasn’t focused on his ‘talent’.
  3331.  
  3332. > Half actual withdrawal from the drugs, you think, and half nervousness at having to really focus again.
  3333. > Eventually you’re pulled away from his side, taking your turn in the copilot’s position.
  3334. > When you glance back, though, Kalendae has joined him in your place.
  3335. > ...maybe even a little closer than your place; rather than use the flight deck intercomm, she was speaking directly into one turned ear of his and had even produced a small smile on his face.
  3336. > That’s enough to make you smile a touch before you turn back to your own controls and continue with Renaud’s next training exercise.
  3337. > When the day is done you intercept Cog before he can get off the plane.
  3338. “Well? What’d you think?”
  3339. > “That was…”
  3340. > He lifts a hoof to brush a bulkhead with an almost reverent touch.
  3341. > “...this plane is old, Spitfire. Probably older than either of us.”
  3342. “How did you know that?”
  3343. > “Knew I was right! It’s all in the vibrations. I can - feel it. Aching, creaking. This old thing doesn’t have too much longer in it.”
  3344. “Is it dangerous?”
  3345. > “I don’t think so. Nothing sounds like it’s going to fall apart. Except the number three engine; it sounds - off.”
  3346. “Off?”
  3347. > “Yeah. I’m not sure what, but you’d better have them look at it.”
  3348. “...okay, but aside from that - how did you feel about your actual job? Do you feel like you’re able to handle it?”
  3349. > Cog doesn’t respond immediately.
  3350. > Instead he stands aside as the rest of the crew files out, hopping into one of the waiting motorboats.
  3351. “Cog?”
  3352. > “I need a hit, Spitfire. You need to get them to dose me.”
  3353. > Your body hardens up, a scowl settling over your features and ears snapping back.
  3354. “What the hell, Cog?”
  3355. > He whirls around, planting a hoof on the bulkhead directly behind you.
  3356. > In direct contrast to his earlier gentleness, this was a heavy, thudding blow that left you nearly ducking for cover.
  3357.  
  3358. > In direct contrast to his earlier gentleness, this was a heavy, thudding blow that left you nearly ducking for cover.
  3359. > “A hit, Spitfire! A high! A lozzie or some shit like that! Get me some fuckin-”
  3360. > “Spitfire? Everything okay in there?”
  3361. > Both of you freeze.
  3362. “...just a second, Anonymous!”
  3363. > Your singsong voice fails to hide the tension in it, but again you are thankful that he trusts you enough to not see what is obviously wrong.
  3364. > You look back to the stallion a second later, fury filling your eyes and coat bristling.
  3365. “Sweet Celestia, Cog. You know I can’t do that-”
  3366. > “Then I can’t work.”
  3367. > Cog spreads his stance, leaning in and lowering his horn as if preparing to charge.
  3368. > “You wanna just dump me into the middle of all this shit and think I’m going to live with it? Uh-uh. Go chew clouds, featherbrain. All I can think about is what one little fuckup will do to this old plane, with that woman ready to bite my head off anyway.”
  3369. “Drugging yourself isn’t going to make any of that go away-”
  3370. > “Inside me it will!”
  3371. “Choking your head on that stuff is not healthy-”
  3372. > “Look at your both, arguing like foals.”
  3373. > Kalendae’s proclamation intrudes on the argument, silencing you both.
  3374. > She looks between each of you, her face a picture of half a snarl of frustration and half a sneer.
  3375. > What’s even more interesting to you, however, is Cog’s reaction.
  3376. > He actually retreats; a flicker of real fear in his eyes.
  3377. > But why…?
  3378. > Kalendae stalks around Cog in a slow, almost predatory circle.
  3379. > “Do you truly think this act will let you perform better?”
  3380. > “Well, I - I can’t - can’t work real well when I’m just fuckin’ getting in and everybody’s looking right at me-”
  3381. > Wheeling around, Kalendae lifts a hindleg and firmly plants it into his ribs; he jumps back, seeming more shocked than hurt.
  3382. > Even so, you are having none of it.
  3383.  
  3384. “Kalendae! That’s enough. We don’t beat ponies to make them obey-”
  3385. > “This is not about ‘obeying’. It is his own sake.”
  3386. > She rounds on Cog again, displaying a snarling mouth full of very non-pointed teeth.
  3387. > “So, do you still want a dose? Want to slip off into your little dreamworld?”
  3388. > For a moment you think the stallion is going to back down.
  3389. > But then he rallies, lowering his head and snorting as though ready to charge.her.
  3390. > “Yes. I do You know what? You two - two military mares are acting like I’m just one of you. Like I know how to take it. But you know what? I don’t. All I can think about is how when this is all over… I’m still not going to have anything to go back to.”
  3391. “Cog-”
  3392. > “In the end I’m still alone. Maybe I’ll just sell myself back into this if they do free me. So if I can go through this without having that weighing on my head? Damn right I will.”
  3393. > “Fine.”
  3394. > Kalendae looks over at you; her eyes are narrowed, but some mischief dances in them.
  3395. > “My Captain, I suggest we accede to his request and grant this stallion what he desires.”
  3396. “Kalendae, I don’t think-”
  3397. > “And then-”
  3398. > She rounds back on him again, wings half-spread in the small space.
  3399. > “-then, I will show you how wrong you are. Because I will be with you. In every moment. In every second. I will be there to show you, Cog Whirl, that you are not alone.”
  3400.  
  3401. --------
  3402.  
  3403. > This time, you remember not to come in through the window.
  3404. > Anonymous raises an eyebrow in question at your sour demeanor instead, which you take to be something approximating a note of thanks.
  3405. > “So, what’s Cog up to over there?”
  3406. “Right now?”
  3407. > “Yeah. You’ve been working with him for what - twelve hours since they dosed him? What’re you trying to do?”
  3408. > You clamber up into a chair and quickly set about checking one wing to see if it needs a fresh preening.
  3409.  
  3410. “At first, he was mostly staring at the console layout charts and giggling. Completely off the wall for a while. Logic Gate told us it’d be a few hours.”
  3411. > “So you’ve just been waiting around for him to cool off?”
  3412. “Waiting?”
  3413. > You look up with a grim, toothy grin.
  3414. > “That look’s giving me a tight sphincter here, Spits.”
  3415. > Kalendae would have done it better, but judging by Anonymous’ reaction you’re a suitable substitute.
  3416. “Good. Because that’s exactly how Cog is going to feel. Kalendae and I went about making totally sure he didn’t get a second’s break. And we’re not going to stop.”
  3417. > “Are you sure that’s a good idea? If he freezes up-”
  3418. “He won’t. Because we’re not going to torment him. Just teach him a couple things: One, that drugs aren’t an escape. He doesn’t get off because just because he’s completely smashed on Lozzies.”
  3419. > Anonymous doesn’t look particularly convinced.
  3420. > “I’d be afraid he’d just - refuse to work until we sent him off somewhere different, where he could browbeat them into letting him get stoned all the time.”
  3421. “I know it’s a risk. But I don’t think he will, because two - two, we’re going to teach him that he’s wanted. That he does have something to come back to when this is done.”
  3422. > You pause, the expression fading a degree.
  3423. “...or at least, Kalendae’s thinking that way. It’s inspiring, let me tell you. And I think she’s doing right. So this time, I’m following her lead.”
  3424. > “Alright, Spits.”
  3425. > Extending a hand, Anonymous ruffles your mane a touch.
  3426. > “If you say so, I guess I’ll stand behind it as well. Certainly sounds good, it’s just…”
  3427. “You’re worried it’ll all collapse and we’ll end up looking like foals.”
  3428. > “Dead on.”
  3429. “Yeah. I know it. But I wasn’t kidding when I told Gerard it’d tear us apart to just kick Cog out. So if he still can’t? Well than at least we damn tried.”
  3430.  
  3431. > “You’ve been talking to that old bird?”
  3432. “Outside of our practice runs? Yeah. What do you think of him?”
  3433. > “As a navigator?”
  3434. > He shrugs.
  3435. > “He’s competent. More than competent. But… distant. That’s really what I’m afraid of.”
  3436. “Don’t I know it.”
  3437. > “Well, if he can do his job I’ll take it.”
  3438. > Sitting up and shrugging off Anonymous’ hand, you stretch forcefully.
  3439. > Damn, you were stiff.
  3440. > Not getting nearly enough flight exercise - first sitting around learning, then teaching!
  3441. “Hey, Anonymous? I’m going to go take a quick flight around before the sun goes down. I’ll be back later.”
  3442. > “Sure thing.”
  3443. > Being well into the early summer measure plenty of easy thermals to ride up as you climb, so you’ve barely broken a sweat as you come to altitude.
  3444. > Up here, the air is cold and refreshing too.
  3445. > The land, magnificent.
  3446. > But-
  3447. > Wait.
  3448. > There, amid the trees lining one of the hillsides bracketing the lake.
  3449. > A flicker of movement again, hard to spot against the gently-shifting branches.
  3450. > Is your pony stalker back?
  3451. > Dashing through the trees, only to slip away when you gave pursuit?
  3452. “Oh, no. Not this time!”
  3453. > Not again.
  3454. > Banking hard, you turn for the hillside and accelerate.
  3455. > Briefly you ponder turning back to get Kalendae - a flanking ally would be helpful here - before discarding the idea.
  3456. > If you lost this quarry now, they’d vanish again.
  3457. > ...plus Kalendae was probably asleep now - putting up with Cog during the day exhausted her.
  3458. > The idea of going to get Gerard is dismissed out of hoof.
  3459. > No, this was between two pegasi.
  3460. > Banking on another thermal, you dance slowly above the treetops - a vantage point from which they could not so easily give you the slip.
  3461. > Of course, if they just stayed still they could be harder to spot, but-
  3462. > Wings tucking, you roll into a hard dive.
  3463. > -there was a plan for that.
  3464.  
  3465. > You pierce the treetops like a bullet, wings snapping open and catching wind just below the canopies.
  3466. > For any lesser pony this would be suicide, but a Wonderbolt’s instincts are good.
  3467. > Ignoring the pain in your wing-shoulders as vertical speed transitions to horizontal, you weave through the trunks for just a second.
  3468. > Blurs of green and brown, branches reaching out like claws, whiz by you -
  3469. > - and, climb!
  3470. > Two quick beats carry you up through the canopy again, back to your over-watch position…
  3471. > ...and just like you’d expected, there was your prey.
  3472. > Fooled into thinking your feinting dive meant you would be confusedly poking around treetops, they had again taken to wing.
  3473. > The advantage wasn’t for long.
  3474. > Your quarry soon realized you were back on their tail and commenced a series of skillful dodging weaves, never letting you glimpse their half-seen form for more than a second.
  3475. > But you are better.
  3476. > Curving around a particularly thick tree, you extend your hooves to reach out and snag them-
  3477. > And grasp nothing but air.
  3478. > What?!
  3479. > He’d evaded you?
  3480. > Whirling in place, you search for any sign of the elusive pony.
  3481. > But - nothing.
  3482. > Nothing!
  3483. > With a wordless cry you slam a hoof into a tree-branch; it splinters under the impact, but does not return the mystery quarry.
  3484. > Not again!
  3485. > You were so close!
  3486. > With a snarl you spread your wings and turn back towards the airfield - thunderclouds hanging over your head.
  3487.  
  3488. --------
  3489.  
  3490. > "You're wasting your time on him, you know."
  3491. > The sandwich had almost made it to your lips, and you're half tempted to just ignore the comment and keep on eating.
  3492. > Hot, delivered food was a soon-vanishing luxury, after all.
  3493. > But Logic Gate was one of the few ponies who'd been on your side through practically all of this, so you felt... mildly obliged to at least hear her out.
  3494. > Setting the sandwich down, you look up and over at her and extend a wing in a gesture to join you.
  3495. "What makes you say that?"
  3496. > "He doesn't want to change."
  3497. > She half-assents, settling on her haunches but close by.
  3498. > "You can heal a lot of damage, Spitfire. But the pony you're healing has to want to be healed too. He doesn't. He's checked out. He's decided he's not going to try; he's not a part of the herd anymore."
  3499. > Her ears fall, tail flicking.
  3500. > "Like I said before. It's not that he's addicted to the high itself. He's addicted to the feeling of not caring. If you can't make him care, you can't make him want to stop."
  3501. "Maybe it's the old guard-mare in me, 'Gate. But I can't just... throw him away either."
  3502. > "I know you want to save ponies, Spitfire. Protect them. But you can't do it for everypony."
  3503. > She looks down at the ground, lighting her horn to nudge pebbles and fragments of concrete around.
  3504. > "And I... I don't know..."
  3505. "I'm not going to snap at you for being honest with me, Logic Gate."
  3506. > "...alright."
  3507. > She takes a deep breath.
  3508. > "This might sound cold, Spitfire, but do an analysis. Maybe you get through to him, maybe you save one pony, but what we're carrying on this mission... it's worth so much more than one pony."
  3509. "You really think it's that important?"
  3510. > "Absolutely. It's critical. It's the way forward."
  3511. > Half of you is more interested in that comment than Cog Whirl...
  3512. > But the wondering look she gets in her eyes when she speaks about it...
  3513. "Did he tell you that the second he 'saved' you?"
  3514. > "Of course not!"
  3515. > Logic Gate laughs, shaking her head.
  3516.  
  3517. "I had to prove myself. And I don't mean bow and scrape or whatever you're thinking. I just had to show I wasn't going to be insufferable."
  3518. > Insufferable.
  3519. > Like Cog was.
  3520. "And after that...?"
  3521. > "After that?"
  3522. > She sighs, her ears finally rising back up as her eyes go unfocused.
  3523. > "I won't lie to you, Spitfire. Thomas was good to me. Thomas gave me things I wouldn't have anywhere else. I'd always dreamed of being part of serious magical research, and - well, he didn't exactly make that dream come true. But, close."
  3524. "Feels like Logic Gate's gone beyond dream. He doesn't even want to dream anymore, because it hurts too much. Can that be woken back up?"
  3525. > With a flick of her tail, Logic Gate's head falls back down and she gives a low huff.
  3526. > "I don't know, Spitfire. I'm not an expert in feelings or anything. Nopony's saying he can't be saved. Maybe something can wake him back up. If he saw - saw something that showed him dreams can be real again."
  3527. > Igniting her horn again, she picks up a few pebbles - making them idly swirl around each other.
  3528. > "All I'm saying is... if we get held up because of him, if we don't go in the end because of him, that'll end up costing ponies a lot more than if we manage to dig him out. And he's just sitting there, laughing behind his drugged-out eyes at you."
  3529. > There's anger in her tone then.
  3530. > Real, hard anger.
  3531. "I'll... keep that in mind."
  3532. > Again she gives a little snort, tossing away the pebbles with a little clatter.
  3533. > "I must sound like a right cunt to you, telling you to just give up on him."
  3534. "Don't think I've never had to just... let a pony go. It happens sometimes."
  3535. > Never in conditions like this, though.
  3536. > Where a failure would mean condemnation...
  3537. > "Yeah. I'd like to castrate a man, though."
  3538. "What, like, fried balls?"
  3539. > Logic Gate laughs.
  3540.  
  3541. > "Yeah, but - I'm pissed, Spitfire. I'm really pissed. I thought this would be our big break, and then... well, I can't blame Terry or Cloud Patch what happened. But if this little freeloading bag of Tirek-shit drags us down for his 'fun'..."
  3542. > At least, you think, she knows she's angry.
  3543. > Logic Gate's words hang with you for the rest of the day, though, and you have to admit:
  3544. > She's not entirely wrong.
  3545. > Seeing the thoughts churning in your head, Logic goes on:
  3546. > "Tell me, Spitfire. What did it feel like when Anonymous first - first gave you real freedom to fly again? When he bought you and said, 'hey, you're a real pony again'?"
  3547. "It... didn't come at first. What I had to do wasn't so much proving as..."
  3548. > As struggling with yourself.
  3549. > She doesn't wait for the answer to be given, though, and just nods.
  3550. > "I guess you had it a bit harder than me. He ever tell you that you just... had to leave someone behind?"
  3551. "Yeah. We got into a big roaring fight about it. Beat each other up pretty good. I think that's when we both realized we were just going to burn out, before we got what we wanted."
  3552. > Though he never had apologized for using the shock collar on you like that.
  3553. "Made it up to me later, though. When we were able to pull some foals out of danger, he made damn sure it happened."
  3554. > "Huh... Spitfire, I'm not saying I'm happy being a slave. But if I were free? I'd probably stay right here. Not many ponies can say that, I know. I want to see this done. We have a victory in our grasp again!"
  3555. > That is a point.
  3556. > What had you once said to yourself - slaves don't have hopes, they have opportunities?
  3557. > Even if just considering the other ponies here, completing the job would get Kalendae - a pony who had already suffered enough - free, and yourself back doing whatever you wanted with Anonymous.
  3558. > Who knew what Gerard would do; he seemed to be genuinely happy with his role.
  3559.  
  3560. > In that, you decide, the first thing you could do was talk it over with the one pony who would be most affected by this:
  3561. > Kalendae rises in the evening, throwing off the blindfold she tucked over her eyes to keep out the day's most fearsome rays.
  3562. > (Note to self, Spitifre - she'll need goggles or something before you all go to Equestria.)
  3563. > You wait until after she takes her breakfast before bringing up the issue, and to her credit Kalendae listens quietly while you explain what Logic Gate had said.
  3564. "...so given that you're the one who'd really be hurt by this the most, I really have to ask - why are you so certain you have to protect him? What's convinced you?"
  3565. > Humming softly, Kalendae tilts her head.
  3566. > "It is what defines us as ponies, My Captain. We must stand together, as one herd. The moment we consider simply throwing a life aside, we have lost our Heart - that which united us once. We have become like the humans, heartless and cold."
  3567. "Isn't it a bit of a big 'slippery slope' there? From accepting he can't be helped, to being completely heartless?”
  3568. > Thankfully, Kalendae seems to understand you don’t mean to argue with her.
  3569. > "Mere jealousy brought our Princess a thousand years alone. It is easy to let one's heart stray further and further, but harder to find it again."
  3570. > Yeah, you can't argue with that...
  3571. > Tilting her head, Kalendae regards you with one slitted eye.
  3572. > "My Captain, have you ever heard of how my kin came to be? Where the 'bat-ponies' come from?"
  3573. "I... no. There was a certain vibe of 'do not ask about it' in the Guard."
  3574. > "It would not have mattered if you had, I think. You would not have gotten many different tales."
  3575. > Laughing, Kalendae sits on her haunches, tucks her tail around her hooves, and extends one webbed wing.
  3576.  
  3577. > "Some speak of a dark curse, from which the Night Mother spared us - her magic forever changing our flesh and blood. Others say that it was her curse, a twisting by the madness which then claimed our Princess eventually. Some speak of foul things done with dragons, letting their blood run in our veins; some say we were the first Equestrians, before the unicorns, earth ponies, and pegasi were driven west by their hatred."
  3578. > She shrugs, tucking the wing back in.
  3579. > "What we know is this: We have never been many, and we have never been truly welcome. Perhaps it is legend that keeps us apart; perhaps it is simply our preferred hours."
  3580. > She pauses, nudging her empty plate with a wing.
  3581. > "I have... seen ponies among my kin who thought the way Cog Whirl does. Thought we could remain forever apart. Why try to spread beyond. We should always remain no more than specters in the night. Legends."
  3582. "What changed?"
  3583. > "The Night Mother returned to us. And despite so many long years away, she had not forgotten us. She drew us forth again, made us her hooves, her servants. She was determined to see us not remain alone."
  3584. > Extending a wing forward, Kalendae toys with the metal ring pierced through its leading edge.
  3585. > "The suffering I have experienced, I think, is dust compared to what she bore. My Captain, how can I abandon Cog when he needs us too? Should we not follow the Princess' lead? Is this not our duty as guards?"
  3586. > She does, you suppose, have a point there.
  3587. "I don't disagree with you, Kalendae. But I have a responsibility to you too."
  3588. > "I understand, My Captain. But I beg you. Please give me time to appeal to him. Is there not a chance? At least until you find another!"
  3589. "Of course, Kalendae. And I'll be right there by your side too."
  3590. > She starts to stand, but before she does something else comes to your mind.
  3591.  
  3592. "Ah - Kalendae - if I can ask you one other thing? You... mentioned Luna a lot. Do you - have you heard anything about her?"
  3593. > Instantly you know your error.
  3594. > Kalendae seems to slump in to herself, a hollowness in her eyes.
  3595. > Fuck.
  3596. > Good job being a leader, Spitfire!
  3597. > "Our Mistress vanished during the troubled times. With the sickness. We heard nothing of Her Highness since."
  3598. "...I'm sorry. I - I thought you might know more. Since you were her House Guard and all..."
  3599. > "You knew this? Few ponies did, even among the Guards of Equestria."
  3600. "Being a Wonderbolt meant getting trotted out for fancy events a lot. I ran into enough Night Guard to learn a bit of your history."
  3601. > You give a wry smile.
  3602. "Don't worry, I'm fairly sure I had a chance to make a fool of myself early on too."
  3603. > Kalendae does not laugh, though, but turns back to watch the moon further - her eyes dropped to narrow slits.
  3604. > "If you know that we were the Wardens of Her House, then you must understand how it troubled us when She deserted this house."
  3605. "I... can imagine yes. But she must have had a reason-"
  3606. > "She took twelve of her closest servants and vanished to us. All we can be certain of is that Our Princess has not perished."
  3607. "You're sure?"
  3608. > Now the slightest creep of a smile actually touches Kalendae's lips.
  3609. > "Through the hardest times, through suffering and slavery, not one of us was troubled by ill dreams. She wards our sleep yet, My Captain. This was not even given to us in her banishment, so we know she must live yet."
  3610. > Live - and maybe even be free!
  3611. > Another thought comes to you then as well:
  3612. "If she's still warding your dreams, then Princess Luna must not be angry at you. She's still looking out for you."
  3613. > "Aye, this I dared to think on."
  3614. > That little smile grows, though tinged with bitterness.
  3615. > "I think, maybe, that this is why I cannot bear to abandon Cog Whirl. What, I think, would My Lady think of me if I were to do that?"
  3616.  
  3617. "Heh. I used to think the same thing about the other Wonderbolts. What would they think of me now..."
  3618. > Those thoughts had become a lot harder after you'd come across Fire Streak.
  3619. > "Aye. But until Her Highness pardons us of our failings, her lips to our ears, we shall not absolve ourselves."
  3620.  
  3621. --------
  3622.  
  3623. “Hey! Come on, sleepyhead. Up - on the double now, up, up, up!”
  3624. > Cog Whirl tumbles from the bed in his typical messy jumble of sheets, an also-normal groan accompanying his impact with the floor.
  3625. > “Wha’ wazzat for?”
  3626. “I didn’t do anything. You fell on your own. That wouldn’t happen if you were sober.”
  3627. > Extracting his head enough to give it a little shake, Cog simply laughs.
  3628. > That, for some reason, annoys you.
  3629. > You’d been expecting…
  3630. > Anger?
  3631. > Some kind of a real response.
  3632. > Something to suggest he was feeling something about the situation.
  3633. > But… nothing.
  3634. “Get showered. You have work to do. We’re already going to be late, and I don’t like late.”
  3635. > “Yeah, yeah…”
  3636. > With all the speed of a well-fed slug he pulls himself alright and starts meandering around towards the bathroom.
  3637. “Now, Cog!”
  3638. > Hah, now that shout got him moving!
  3639. > And he does perk up when he emerges to spot Kalendae waiting for him - ears pricking up a bit at the sight of the Thestral mare.
  3640. > If only that enthusiasm for being with her would translate into enthusiasm for…
  3641. > Well, anything else.
  3642. > Oh, yes - he’s learning.
  3643. > And he’s skilled.
  3644. > You’ve rarely seen anypony able to pull up answers as accurately - and more importantly, confidently - as he does.
  3645. > But quickly…?
  3646. > No.
  3647. > Work is regarded as some kind of imposition on his time paying attention to Kalendae, and not all the drill-sergeant barking or reminders in the world seem to get through to that.
  3648. > By the end of the day's exercises, even Kalendae is looking ready to lash out at something - or somepony.
  3649. > Which would be less alarming if it were the first, second, or even sixth day working at him like this.
  3650. > It is the fifteenth.
  3651. > By the fifteenth, you'd have expected to see some sign - any sign - of your decision breaking through.
  3652. > Instead, it is Kalendae who seems to be cracking.
  3653. > While Cog Whirl stumbles off, you catch her with one extended wing and lower your voice.
  3654.  
  3655. "If he's getting to you, I can call this off. Wherever this goes, I can't have you losing your cool."
  3656. > Huffing, Kalendae snaps her tail back and forth.
  3657. > "He works for me… but it’s for me. Only for me. He does nothing I do not prompt him too, because he only seeks my approval.”
  3658. “Wouldn’t he want to just… do it, then? Make you even happier?”
  3659. > Kalendae snorts.
  3660. > “You have become too used to your eager Wonderbolt-recruits, Captain. Think with the mind of one who wishes to ‘negotiate’ out a maximum of rewards from his superiors.”
  3661. > ...right.
  3662. > This was the pony who’d argue his way into getting as much of a hit as he could.
  3663. “He’ll drag his hooves just enough so that you have to stick around, but not so much you just give up.”
  3664. > “And he knows, I think, that I cannot give up. I cannot condemn him.”
  3665. > Neither could you.
  3666. > Not another pony, condemned to that fate.
  3667. “Rutting bastard. And the rutting bastards who made him this way!”
  3668. > “If we cannot change him, then…”
  3669. > Kalendae hisses through her teeth, shaking her head - tail lashing back and forth as she scuffs at the ground with a hoof.
  3670. “I’ll go talk to him again. See if I can’t drive some more sense into his head.”
  3671. > “I believe we need a new tactic. You may try, though.”
  3672. > You catch up with Cog nearly back at the sleeping trailers.
  3673. "Cog - hey, Cog Whirl!"
  3674. > He stops looking back at you - the stallion's typical dopey smile fading as he sees who is pursuing him.
  3675. > "What now, Spitfire?"
  3676. "We need to talk about your dedication, Cog."
  3677. > Dropping to your haunches in front of him leaves you still nearly as tall as he - and your glare cares not about height differences.
  3678. "You aren't really trying to work on your own. Kalendae can see it as much as I am. That's a real problem, Cog, 'cause in a team like this we need everypony keeping themselves going."
  3679. > At your mention of Kalendae he actually looks a little worried, and you seize on that.
  3680.  
  3681. "You like her, don't you? Don't have to deny it; we're not a formal military and I'm not blind anyway."
  3682. > "Fuck. Guess the Lozzie cost me that subtlety, huh?"
  3683. > You kind of get the sense that this stallion had all the subtlety of a feral thunderstorm in the first place.
  3684. > But not the right time to mention that.
  3685. "Yeah, it's pretty obvious now."
  3686. > "Eh, what can I say? She's got a rockin' rump, and that funky exotic thing goin' with her wings, y'know? And spirit. A damn lot of spirit in that mare!"
  3687. > Wait, was he comparing Kalendae to you?
  3688. > You aren't sure whether to be more insulted by his comparing your bodies - yeah, your butt wasn't the biggest, but you were a racer-built pony and had more than enough tuft to make up for it! - or your spirit.
  3689. > That spirit was what you really prided yourself on.
  3690. > It'd carried you through months in a cage and nearly losing Anonymous...
  3691. "Keep it in your sheath right now, colt. I don't care what you fantasize about at night, but I don't want to hear about it-"
  3692. > "What, you chasing her too? Didn't take you for that type, y'know? Figured you and your master were-"
  3693. > His hips rock suggestively.
  3694. > "-havin' a little fun, with how close you are..."
  3695. > You suck in a deep breath and force your hackles down.
  3696. "Cog Whirl?"
  3697. > "Yeah?"
  3698. "If you ever say anything like that again, I will literally geld you. Am I understood?"
  3699. > At least he has the good sense to actually look a little scared.
  3700. > "Yeah! Tartarus' black pits, chill out - I was joking!"
  3701. "I don't care. Look, Cog - I really don't care what you're into. All I care about is that we get through this safe."
  3702. > Stretching out a leg, you tap his chest (and feel mildly dirty doing so).
  3703. "And that means we can't be babying you. If you like Kalendae that much, stop worrying her and actually get with the job. And once we're done, and you're free, then you can do whatever you want with her."
  3704.  
  3705. > "You got that in writing? That we'll be free?"
  3706. "I've got the next best thing, which is Anonymous' word. Good as given."
  3707. > "Then go get yourself stuffed."
  3708. > This time, you can't even manage to disguise your anger.
  3709. > You hop up to your hooves again, wings outspread and frustration on your face.
  3710. "What in all Harmony is wrong with you, Cog Whirl? Don't you want to be free at all? Have any desire to-"
  3711. > "No, I really don't."
  3712. > Cog meets you head on, lowering his horn in a typical unicorn-charge posture.
  3713. > "You don't get it. I go free, I go do what? Kalendae runs off to play guardpony for a dead nation, but I'm not that stupid. Browbeating me like one of your recruits isn't going to help either. It isn't going to bring Equestria back. Nothing will."
  3714. > Snorting, he tosses his head and paws at the concrete.
  3715. > "So I'll be free? To go where? A dead nation, poverty, or back into serving them? Fuck it, I'll drag my hooves a bit if it means she's around more. ‘Cause y’know what? Even if she is playing at being a real guard still, at least she gives a damn. More than her body, even, that’s what I like about her. She cares."
  3716. “And I don’t?”
  3717. > “Not like she does.”
  3718. > You let him turn and wander off again.
  3719. > What else can you do?
  3720. > This is a dead end.
  3721. > You don't want to abandon Cog Whirl.
  3722. > But how do you fix somepony that broken?
  3723. > Didn’t you care about him just as much as Kalendae did?
  3724. > You take to wing again, seeking solace high up in the sky.
  3725. > Here, at least, you could find some measure of peace alone with your burning muscles.
  3726. > Or not - again, your mystery stalker at the edge of camp makes themselves known, a blur flying along the edge of the wooded hillside.
  3727. > You know what?
  3728. > You’ve had it.
  3729. > No fancy plans, no strategic flying.
  3730. > Just a mare and her muscles this time.
  3731. > Pushing yourself to a hard limit - an especially hard limit, given that you had not stretched before trying this - you lean into a shallow dive.
  3732.  
  3733. > Coming screaming out of the sky like a yellow meteor, your prey resolves itself into a blueish blur that finally catches sight of you at the last second and dives into the woods.
  3734. > A turn too late this time!
  3735. > This further out the woods aren’t so thin; you can’t be led astray so easily.
  3736. > You can see them now, a coat of blue but broken up by the ragged remnants of a light jacket of some kind.
  3737. > Still closing fast-
  3738. > A last few hard beats of your wings-
  3739. > Curving down into an arcing tackle-
  3740. > Planting your forelegs directly about their wings and squeezing hard on their ribs to restrict breathing.
  3741. > Their flight wobbles, fails, and sends both of you into a tumbling, spinning collision with the forest floor.
  3742. > Starbursts fill your vision; still, you were the more prepared.
  3743. “Gotcha! You’re not running away this time, you-”
  3744. > “Spits? Spitfire?!”
  3745. > That voice.
  3746. > Impossible.
  3747. > Utterly impossible.
  3748. > You shake your head to clear your vision, squeeze your eyes shut and open them-
  3749. > To reveal that your hooves are locked around an unimaginable sight.
  3750. “S-Soarin?!”
  3751. > Impossible.
  3752. > Unbelievable.
  3753. > Inconceivable!
  3754. > So shocking that you forget to even breath for several seconds.
  3755. > Then he shakes you again, and-
  3756. > You breath.
  3757. > Start to think.
  3758. > Because in this case, the impossible seems really true.
  3759. > Soarin - your Soarin - is here.
  3760. > Those same green eyes, aged now and with even greater bags beneath them.
  3761. > That same well-built frame, wide wings, and rough coat beneath scraps of ragged cloth.
  3762. > Even that same smell filling your nostrils.
  3763. > No question, this is him.
  3764. > “Winds guide me… it really is you Spiiiimmmph!”
  3765. > His statement is cut off hard as you kiss him full-on on the lips, heart racing.
  3766.  
  3767. “Soarin! What are you-?! I just can’t believe… can’t believe it was you, all the way out here-”
  3768. > “The same! I heard ponies talking around, but it didn’t ever feel safe to come closer. Especially with that griffon…”
  3769. “Gerard? Oh, yeah. It’s probably lucky you didn’t run into him.”
  3770. > You laugh - a loud, ringing, almost crazed laugh coming up from the part of you that really doesn’t quite believe this is true yet.
  3771. “Harmony’s sakes, Soarin - what are you even doing out here?”
  3772. > “Doing? Surviving, mostly.”
  3773. > You crawl off of him, and Soarin stands - shaking himself off, and letting you see how rough he really was.
  3774. > His fur is ragged and shaggy, some of it looking like he had barely shed the last of his long winter coat.
  3775. > Mane and tail are little better; you can see some nasty-looking tangles in them.
  3776. > And what you had taken to be a jacket was in reality little more than a cloak of faded and stained cloth from Celestia-knows-what.
  3777. > But his eyes…
  3778. > They are still alive.
  3779. > Alive with same easygoing confidence you’d always seen in him.
  3780.  
  3781. --------
  3782.  
  3783. > But…
  3784. > No collar.
  3785. “Soarin? Are you actually on the run?!”
  3786. > Yeah, there’s that same old guilty look.
  3787. > “I, uh… yeah. I kind of am. Been camping out here the past several months. It’s nice and quiet, nobody really bugs me up here…”
  3788. > Until you showed up.
  3789. > Guilt flushes through you - if it were just you that would be one thing, but Kalendae had encountered him as well.
  3790. “How… how did you even get away? I mean, they must have known who we were-”
  3791. > “I got lucky. Very, very lucky. One of the guards after they sold me the first time thought I was ‘cute’.”
  3792. “And he let you escape?”
  3793. > “Well, I don’t think she thought I was going to run if she left the door open…”
  3794. > You have mixed feelings about that.
  3795. > On the one hoof, if Anonymous had given you a chance to flee before you’d really known him then you undoubtedly would have.
  3796. > On the other, making use of someone’s trust…
  3797. > Seeing your expression, Soarin shakes his head.
  3798. > “I almost felt bad, Spitfire, but I’m not a pretty toy to be cooed over. I’m - me. A pony.”
  3799. “...I dunno, I’m pretty sure I was cooing over a pretty toy a few times.”
  3800. > Soarin rolls his eyes, but can’t resist a grin.
  3801. > Oh yeah - you still got it, filly!
  3802. > “That was completely different and you know it.”
  3803. “Yeah, yeah. So, you punched out and then what?”
  3804. > “Been keeping to the rural areas. There’s a lot of that up here, so it’s pretty easy.”
  3805. > That, at least, must have been why you hadn’t heard anything about him…
  3806. “I don’t suppose you’ve heard anything of Fleetfoot?”
  3807. > Maybe she had even been there with him…
  3808. “No. Blaze was captured with me, but I don’t know if she got out.”
  3809. > “From what I’ve heard, no. She’s somewhere on the East Coast now.”
  3810. > Soarin’s ears fall, and you give him a brief nuzzle.
  3811. > “Well, that’s the cost I pay for being out of touch with the world for so long, I guess…”
  3812.  
  3813. “You never tried to get back to Equestria? There are groups helping ponies make the trip, allegedly…”
  3814. > He shakes his head firmly.
  3815. > “I don’t want to endanger anyone. I’m too important, you know? If any authorities caught word that a military officer had escaped back, they’d come down on any groups like that hard.”
  3816. > That... is a fair point.
  3817. “What now, though? I mean, you can’t just…”
  3818. > “Keep running?”
  3819. > Soarin huffs softly, settling down on the forest floor with shuffling wings.
  3820. > “I’m not running, Spitfire. Just have to move again. I found a nice little abandoned single-room cabin on the next hill over. It’s not the best, but I stole a plastic tarp and patched it up.”
  3821. “That’s not any better!”
  3822. > He laughs, rolling over onto his back and shooting you one of his classic lackadaisical grins.
  3823. > “That’s my captain. Always worrying about us even when you’re still caught up in…”
  3824. > A hoof gestures to his throat, indicating where you collar is.
  3825. > “Speaking of which, what happened to you? I thought I’d have heard about you for sure.”
  3826. “It’s… a long story. I wouldn’t give them an inch, and I didn’t have any lucky guards thinking I was ‘cute’-”
  3827. > “Totally are, though.”
  3828. “Shut that pie-hole, Soarin!”
  3829. > You can’t keep a little laughter out of your voice, though.
  3830. > It’s just such a relief to see him again!
  3831. “...anyway, I guess you’re doing better than me now.”
  3832. > “What do you mean?”
  3833. “I’m… tame, I guess. Or at least, I’ve found one I don’t mind working with…”
  3834. > Soarin listens while you tell your tale.
  3835. > Throughout it, he scoots closer - until his head is resting on your withers.
  3836. > You can’t really protest.
  3837. > At another time you would have mightily; your relationship with him was quiet and private.
  3838. > But now?
  3839. > Just his presence is soothing.
  3840. “...so anyway, that’s where I am now. Stuck with this lot, at least until we’re through and they’re freed.”
  3841.  
  3842. > Twisting your head about, you push your nose in beneath one of his wings and start nuzzling around his feathers.
  3843. > Soarin patiently extends a wing, letting you begin preening his feathers.
  3844. > Ugh - he’s not dirty, but these wings could use a lot more care!
  3845. “What in all Equestria have you been doing to your wings? Don’t you know how to care for them?! I’m going to have to bust you back to basic for this.”
  3846. > “I’ve been a little busy, Spits, in case you forgot.”
  3847. > You jab him in the ribs with a hoof.
  3848. “Yeah, well so have I. Unless you’ve forgotten.”
  3849. > “Forgotten? I thought I was damn lucky, but you getting to bring ponies home? First the bunch in Las Vegas, now this? The wind has favored you.”
  3850. “Don’t I know it. But we’re not going to go anywhere unless they can find another suitable navigator who can come… home… to Equestria…”
  3851. > Ideas are coalescing in your head.
  3852. > Crazy, insane ideas.
  3853. > Soarin looks up when you stop your preening.
  3854. > Instantly his eyes go narrow, shaking his head and sending his wild mane flopping.
  3855. > “No, Spitfire. I’m a fugitive. You can’t bring me along.”
  3856. “Go stick your head in a cloud, Soarin. I’m not going to just - just let you drift away after I finally found you-”
  3857. > “I’d be putting our all in danger.”
  3858. “And look at it this way: If we can get you on our crew, then when this is over you’ll be free for real. No more sneaking around.”
  3859. > “Spitfire, I can’t!”
  3860. > He’d actually pulled away from you - rolled back onto his belly and sat up again, brows knitted and giving a stifled whinny.
  3861. > You take a step back, wings half-flaring, then lean back in and nuzzle him with a soft nicker.
  3862. > “I’m sorry, Captain…”
  3863. “Don’t apologize. I just - I can’t - why not, Soarin?”
  3864. > “Spitfire, if I just turn up there someone will figure out who I am pretty quick. And that’ll be the end of it for both of us. There are rewards for turning in escaped ponies, you know!”
  3865.  
  3866. > Huffing, you settle back down with a toss of your mane.
  3867. “Of course I do. I just told you helped a bunch of colts and fillies get away safely. It’s not new to me.”
  3868. > “Well, yes, but… urgh, Spitfire, stop trying to tempt me!”
  3869. “So then you’ll come-”
  3870. > “But that still doesn’t answer how I’m supposed to get in there without being arrested.”
  3871. > You huff and lash your tail against the forest floor with a thump.
  3872. “What if… what if Anonymous could buy you from whoever had you before? Then he wouldn't be arrested and neither of us would go away-”
  3873. > “Because we’d be owned by him!”
  3874. > The first real glimmer of anger flickers through Soarin’s eyes as he stands.
  3875. > “I know you trust him, but I don’t even know the guy - and you want me to just waltz back into being owned?”
  3876. “Isn’t being free - really free, not looking over your shoulder - in the end worth it?”
  3877. > For a moment, Soarin stares at you with head cocked.
  3878. > Then he turns away with a shuffling of his wings.
  3879. > “Maybe you really have gone tame, Captain.”
  3880. > The way he says it - ‘gone tame’, the same way someone might speak about ‘going soft’ - opens a deep rift within you.
  3881. > From anyone else but him you’d brush it off, but…
  3882. > Sinking down to your belly, you’re surprised by soft hoofsteps herald Soarin’s arrival back at your side.
  3883. > His nose, nuzzling into your neck and sniffing softly.
  3884. > “Sorry, ‘fire. Didn’t mean to give you a kick like that.”
  3885. “S’fine, I just…”
  3886. > You snort softly.
  3887. “...you’re not the only one I’ve been hearing it from lately.”
  3888. > Turning your head around, you go nose-to-nose with the familiar stallion and take in the scent of his breath.
  3889. “I just can’t believe, of all ponies you - Soarin, the Soarin, the pony I could rely on to push himself or anypony else who needed it to reach whatever goal - that Soarin, is backing down.”
  3890. > “I… being a slave changes a pony, Spitfire. Changes us a lot.”
  3891.  
  3892. > He breaks the contact, turning his head away as his ears go flat-back and tail swats against the ground.
  3893. > You’re not letting him get away that easily, and stretch your head out to brush your nose against his cheek.
  3894. “Guess it does, huh?”
  3895. > Soarin’s head turns back around and you lean in a bit further to press your forehead to his.
  3896. “Just… promise me tomorrow, okay? Promise me you’ll still be around.”
  3897. > “I promise. I won’t go anywhere just yet.”
  3898. > Energy fills you anew, and you leap upright - fanning your wings in preparation for flight.
  3899. > “Hey, where are you going?!”
  3900. “I’m still going to talk to Anonymous about this. I’m not giving up so easily, Soarin!”
  3901. > Unfortunately, Anonymous is currently working with Gerard - and there’s absolutely no way you are discussing this in front of that featherbag!
  3902. > You’re left practically jumping from hoof to hoof as he wraps up and heads back from the trailer; by the time he finishes, you’re nearly ready to explode.
  3903. > “Sooooo. Can I ask what you’re dancing around for?”
  3904. > Leaping up on the bed, you trot in a little circle - tail fluffed up and flicking to and fro.
  3905. “Well… okay. Anonymous, what happens to the owner if a slave runs away?”
  3906. > “Huh? Well, I mean if the police can’t bring them back…”
  3907. “Yeah, that! Like, do they still technically ‘own’ them?”
  3908. > “As long as they don’t get rid of the paperwork, yeah. There’s insurance policies that cover some - if the pony doesn’t come back after a while, insurance pays out and takes the holding papers.”
  3909. “O-kay.”
  3910. > Another circle paced, and you pause to look up at him.
  3911. “If you have the name of a pony, how hard is it to find out who owns them? And if the insurance company might have their papers - and be willing to sell?”
  3912. > “Spitfire, what did you do?”
  3913. “I did absolutely nothing wrong, and I resent the implication.”
  3914. > His gives you a flat stare, which you return with a grin.
  3915.  
  3916. “Now, another pony might have run away, and we both might have stumbled into each other somewhere nearby-”
  3917. > “No.”
  3918. > The sheer finality of Anonymous’ denial catches you off guard.
  3919. > He takes full advantage of the momentary surprise and repeats himself:
  3920. > “Sorry, Spits, but there’s a limit to how much leeway I can give you on all of this. In the end, we have to be careful about who we bring on this time.”
  3921. “For Celestia’s sake - is anyone going to just make this easy for me? First him, now you-”
  3922. > “Wait, he doesn’t even want to come in? Then why are you so-”
  3923. “He’s a Wonderbolt, Anonymous.”
  3924. > “Oh.”
  3925. > There’s a lot of emotion caught up in that one single syllable.
  3926. > Anonymous sits down heavily on the bed, the cheap mattress creaking under his weight.
  3927. “Yeah. And at that, it’s Soarin. He is -”
  3928. > Your lover.
  3929. “- was my second in command. He’s a good stallion, Anonymous. More than just a good flier, he was a good commander. If you wanted someone to help knit the group together…”
  3930. > “Yeah, I remember you talking about him a couple times before.”
  3931. > Anonymous’ hand settles on your withers, lightly rubbing the fuzz there.
  3932. > “Shit, Spitfire. I’m sorry.”
  3933. “Don’t be. Just, tell me how we can get his papers.”
  3934. > But he doesn’t answer.
  3935. > Instead he just rubs his head with a sigh.
  3936. > “I can look in to that, Spits, but I… it’s hard. You just dropped this on me at once!”
  3937. “I didn’t know, okay? Not even that it was him. I just saw him - a pony, I knew, but just a pony - a couple times before, flying around on the next hill over-”
  3938. > Anonymous’ eyebrows shoot straight up.
  3939. > “Wait, you knew there was a random pony hanging around and you didn’t tell me? Did you tell anyone?”
  3940. “No. Well, Kalendae knows because she was there once, and Gerard probably knows because griffon, but that’s about it.”
  3941. > He pinches his nose, and you roll your eyes.
  3942.  
  3943. “Anonymous. Please, I didn’t think it was that serious. So I ran into a pony who was a good flyer once or twice. For all I knew they were just a slave around here - out doing work, or too shy. It’s not like he was actually sneaking around the edge of the property.”
  3944. > “...a pony good enough to outfly you?”
  3945. > You snort, ears flicking.
  3946. “Believe it or not, I’m not the be-all and end-all of good flyers. Especially after this long; I was already getting on in my career… before.”
  3947. > Staring flatly at you, Anonymous just raises an eyebrow.
  3948. “Oh, come on. Do I have to tell you about every pony I run into? Did you want to hear about the time I stumbled into one in a strip club?”
  3949. > A jab that finally regains you the initiative, as Anonymous’ thoughts are interrupted.
  3950. > “Wait - you - in a strip club? What-?!”
  3951. “It’s a long story. Back in Sproat Lake; I didn’t know what it was, she saw I didn’t know, pulled me aside, got some drinks…”
  3952. > You shoot a wink in his direction.
  3953. “...got to ‘see the sights’ a bit…”
  3954. > “Oh, shut up.”
  3955. > You laugh.
  3956. “But you get my point, right?”
  3957. > “Yeah, I guess. But y’know, it’s not me you’re really going to have to convince.”
  3958. “Alicia.”
  3959. > You grimace hard, your upbeat mood quickly lost; that was not an argument you were looking forward to.
  3960. > “Thomas and Gregory Whitworth too. You’re going to have a hard time selling them on a pony that ran away.”
  3961. > Actually…
  3962. > Hadn’t Logic once told you that Thomas was a sympathizer?
  3963. > Maybe you could leverage that.
  3964. > Alicia would be far more problematic, but one thing at a time.
  3965. “I’ll… look, just come and meet him tomorrow, please?”
  3966. > “I guess. Should be able to spare a couple hours.”
  3967. “Cool. Oh, one other thing: Do you know where we can find any pie?”
  3968.  
  3969. --------
  3970.  
  3971. > The hike is a lot slower with Anonymous than you’d expected, and so the sun is already creeping below the hill-top when you make your way up towards it.
  3972.  
  3973. > You had forgotten how much slower this would be when it wasn’t just you hurtling over the treetops!
  3974. > Turning back with a flick of your tail to glare at Anonymous earns you an apologetic grin amid his wheezing.
  3975. > “Sorry … Spits. I’m … not … up … for hiking … like this!”
  3976. > Ugh.
  3977. > And you already had the food packages in your saddlebags.
  3978. “I’m going to have to get you working out more often. Having a machine do all the flying is making you lazy!”
  3979. > “I’m not lazy, Prettybird, but this is a damn marathon right here.”
  3980. “Oh, shush. It’s over one hill and halfway up the next. And we’re almost there.”
  3981. > Honestly!
  3982. > The fluttering of wings flared wide for landing heralds an unexpectedly early appearance.
  3983. > Soarin touches down and quickly moves to give you a nuzzle.
  3984. “Hey there.”
  3985. > Then he turns to Anonymous, and you can watch his eyes tighten.
  3986. > Tossing down his backpack, your owner fixes his eyes with the stallion and despite his exhaustion refuses to back down.
  3987. > “So. You’re the one who owns Spitfire, huh?”
  3988. > “And you’re the one she’s raising a big fuss over, huh?”
  3989. “Ugh, colts. You’re all the same. Come on, what are you two going to do next, pop your tools out of your sheaths and start comparing sizes?”
  3990. > Anonymous snorts; Soarin rolls his eyes - but the jibe worked.
  3991. > The tension is broken.
  3992. “Hey, Soarin. Anonymous got you some stuff to eat - better than what you can scrounge up out here.”
  3993. > “Does that mean - oooh.”
  3994. > Soarin’s nostrils go wide as he sniffs at your saddlebags.
  3995. “Yes, you great glutton. I did bring a pie for you.”
  3996. > “Are you really that easy to please, Soarin?”
  3997. > The stallion rolls his eyes at Anonymous’ question.
  3998. > “Hey, you try living like this for a couple years and you’ll get used to it too.”
  3999. > Anonymous laughs at that, though, and seats himself cross-legged on the forest floor.
  4000.  
  4001. > “So, Soarin. Spitfire asked me to look a bit into your past, so we could figure out what’s going to happen next. And… it’s mixed.”
  4002. > A foul look is shot in your direction by Soarin, but your ears are focused solely on Anonymous.
  4003. > You didn’t know he’d already had a chance to look into this!
  4004. “Well?”
  4005. > “The good news is, the money for your return is being offered at a standard rate on a general site. That means whoever owned you has probably claimed insurance already, and we can buy you off of them.”
  4006. > “That’s… great. What’s the bad news, then?”
  4007. > “Bad news is, we’ve still got to dig around and see who’s holding your papers now.”
  4008. “Will they want to sell them?”
  4009. > “Well, lemme ask you this. Would you rather pay someone else to get Soarin back, probably put him through another round of ‘training’, and then maybe sell him just to recoup your investment - or just sell his contract outright?”
  4010. > The stallion in question snorts angrily; Anonymous shrugs.
  4011. > “Yeah, that sounds cold. That’s the way they’ll think about it.”
  4012. “Not your fault, Anonymous.”
  4013. > Turning your head back, you give Soarin a tentative nuzzle.
  4014. “Come on, Soarin. You won’t be putting us at risk if Anonymous can get your papers. And then you can stop sneaking around like an old Everfree hermit. Nopony wants to be alone.”
  4015. > You certainly didn’t.
  4016. > Green eyes flick between the two of you; Soarin doesn’t yet trust.
  4017. > “I… I just don’t like the idea of being ‘owned’ if I can help it.”
  4018. > “Not going to argue that, Soarin.”
  4019. > Reaching out with one hand, Anonymous grins a little.
  4020. > “However much you feel, I know Spitfire must have felt just as much. Y’know I once woke up in the night to see her almost thinking about kicking my head in?”
  4021. > “Wait, what?”
  4022. “Uh…”
  4023. > “You didn’t tell me about that part, Spitfire!”
  4024. “I miiight have left it out, yeah…”
  4025.  
  4026. > Anonymous’ soft laugh is a sign to Soarin that the matter wasn’t a sore one -
  4027. > “...see if what you can find out about the papers, Spitfire. Then I’ll think about it.”
  4028. > Yes!
  4029. > You knew he would-
  4030. > Before you can think further, Soarin rears up and places both his forehooves on Anonymous’ shoulders.
  4031. > He leans in, going nearly nose-to-nose with Anonymous and snorting through flared nostrils.
  4032. > “But. You had better treat her good. I don’t know you, or what you did to Spitfire to make her trust you. But I swear on Celestia, Luna, and all harmony, if you’re hurting her-”
  4033. > “Easy there.”
  4034. > Lifting a hand, Anonymous gently places it on one forehoof.
  4035. > “It’s not what I did. It’s what she did. She saved my life, and I still owe her for that. So I’m not going to mess with her after that, you know?”
  4036. > You decide not to point out that in some ways, he had saved your life first.
  4037. > Discretion is a captain’s prerogative, after all.
  4038. > Soarin accept the argument too; he drops his hooves from Anonymous’ shoulders with a grunt.
  4039. > “Now… what’s this about Spitfire almost killing you, too?”
  4040.  
  4041. --------
  4042.  
  4043. > “So, Anonymous tells me there’s another pony you’d like to bring onboard as our second navigator.”
  4044. “That’s right, Thomas.”
  4045. > “An old friend of yours. Another - Wonderbolt, was it?”
  4046. “Yes. We were an elite unit - military, but also a flight display team. They were the absolute best.”
  4047. > Thomas leans back in his seat.
  4048. > Though they tried not to show it, most of the others on his own little team were also paying attention - with Logic Gate and Bell Curve in particular having completely undisguised ears pointed in your direction.
  4049. > Sai seemed pretty interested too, though he at least was keeping his eyes on his screen.
  4050. > “Do you think he will be a good fit for it, personality-wise?”
  4051. “Soarin is - was more laid back than I am, more relaxed. We made a good team, he and I. You know ‘Good Cop, Bad Cop’?”
  4052. > “Of course. You were bad cop?”
  4053. “Kinda? Being captain means you had to be distant sometimes. Had to-”
  4054. > Huh.
  4055. > You were about to say ‘crack the whip’, but that seemed… wrong now.
  4056. > A whole category of aphorisms, just another thing lost to slavery.
  4057. > It’d be amusing, if not so sad.
  4058. “-had to be tough with them. I hated that sometimes. The relaxed events were the best, when I could be relaxed. The rest of the time, Soarin would get them to open up first. Then they’d realize I’m not just a chewing-out-machine.”
  4059. > “Heh. That so.”
  4060. > Leaning forward in his seat, Thomas folds his hands.
  4061. > “Judging by what Anonymous told me, though, he’s run away. Since we have to get his papers back from an insurance holder…”
  4062. > You wince.
  4063. “...like me, he’s not a fan of being - enslaved. And he didn’t have an Anonymous to come give him a place he’d be respected in.”
  4064. > “But he won’t be a problem, here.”
  4065. “Soarin is the last pony I think there’d be a problem with.”
  4066. > You nudge a chair over with one hoof and leap up onto the seat, putting you at something close to head-height with Thomas.
  4067.  
  4068. “Look… Thomas, I know you - understand how we’re feeling about this. Ponies, I mean.”
  4069. > “Heard about that, huh?”
  4070. > Logic Gate’s ears go flat, and you give Thomas a hard look.
  4071. “Yes, and don’t be hard on her about it. She wanted to help me. To let me know people are ”
  4072. > “...okay, easy!”
  4073. > Thomas holds up his hands defensively, and you chuckle.
  4074. > Maybe that had been a bit more aggressive than you meant to…
  4075. “Look, the point is - you understand. Soarin doesn’t hate people. He’s angry at what happened to us. Angry at having his life and home taken away, and maybe a little scared too. He just wants to be treated like - somepony again, not something.”
  4076. > “I get it, Spitfire. But you forget, I’m not the one you really have to convince-”
  4077. “If Gregory Whitworth creates a fuss, tell him that he got to force Cog Whirl on us and we’re making do with that. He can take Soarin’ as our pick.”
  4078. > “Actually, I meant Alicia.”
  4079. > You wince, and Thomas leans forward.
  4080. > “Look, I don’t know everything that’s going on there. But I do know it’s starting to be noticeable.”
  4081. “You’re not even part of your flight crew. If you’ve noticed it…”
  4082. > He nods.
  4083. > “I can get the money for buying Soarin’s papers. But you need to get her approval.”
  4084. > Alicia Millicant.
  4085. > What little you knew of the woman didn’t speak favorably to her - but then, you knew very little.
  4086. > Only what Renaud had revealed of her past, and of course this was the one thing you could not use to argue her in your favor.
  4087. > There’s no good strategy for this; you simply have to see where things go.
  4088. > Trust in the winds and let them carry you.
  4089. > You catch up with Alicia shortly after dark, hooves clip-clopping on the concrete in a deliberate choice to give her early warning of your approach.
  4090. > This was a diplomatic outreach, not an ambush.
  4091. > Even so she does not turn around until you call out:
  4092. “Alicia! Can we talk a minute?”
  4093.  
  4094. > Halting, Alicia meets your approach with her typical cold gaze.
  4095. > “What?”
  4096. > Here goes nothing.
  4097. “I wanted to apologize.”
  4098. > “This should be good.”
  4099. > Yeah, it’ll be good alright.
  4100. > Because it starts with admitting that you really had cocked this up once already.
  4101. “I’m serious. There’s no - look, Alicia. When I brought Cog Whirl in, I asked Gerard to go lean on you to get you to agree. Because I was afraid of an argument with you. So I hid behind him and let him do my dirty work.”
  4102. > “Oh, is that why he decided to come over and singing the praises of that wreck? I was wondering what turned him around.”
  4103. > Wait, Gerard was singing praises for Cog Whirl?
  4104. > That was - odd.
  4105. > You’d have to ask him about that later.
  4106. “...whatever the reason, it was wrong and I should have addressed you face-to-face instead-”
  4107. > “Look, will you quit trying to butter me up and just get to the God-damn point? What the hell do you want out of me?”
  4108. > You wince.
  4109. > Okay, not so according to plan.
  4110. “...I was trying to be polite, but okay - if you want it up front, I’ve found another potential recruit to fill in the last navigator position, but he’s a pony-”
  4111. > “Go right to fucking hell.”
  4112. > In a whirl of brown curls she spins around walks right away.
  4113. > Not that it stops you from catching up.
  4114. “Will you at least hear me out before deciding it’s not even worth it to listen?!”
  4115. > “No, I really fucking won’t.”
  4116. > Her hand comes up, the middle finger extending in a gesture that is at once alien and by now quite familiar to you.
  4117. > “I could put up with a couple of you while there were enough of us to keep you in line, but now you’re talking about having more ponies on that plane than people, and I’m not dealing with that.”
  4118. “So that’s it? We’re all just ‘ponies’ to you?”
  4119. > No answer is forthcoming, so you leap ahead and spin around on the concrete to glare at her.
  4120.  
  4121. “Look - I’m sorry about your parents’ home. I’m not trying to butter you up or anything, I’m really truly sorry.”
  4122. > “So, Renaud went and spilled the fucking beans to you, huh?”
  4123. > Oh, shit.
  4124. > Good fucking job, Spitfire.
  4125. > Now you’re going to have another apology to deliver later on...
  4126. > If this team is even together by the time you are done.
  4127. “...yes, he did. And don’t go yelling at him now, because unlike you he’s actually trying to see us as more than things-”
  4128. > “You think that’s how I see you?”
  4129. > Alicia gives a loud, bitter laugh, and you’re suddenly aware that this is probably something that can be heard by others.
  4130. > “No, no - you’ve got it all wrong, Spitfire. I don’t think you’re ‘things’, I just don’t trust any one of you at all.”
  4131. > Jabbing a finger at your muzzle, she spits out:
  4132. > “You ponies came to us with promises of ‘harmony’ and ‘friendship’, that we’d all get together and be best buddies forever. But then the going got hard, and oh - now all bets are off. Then we’re just a convenient target.”
  4133. > Whirling around, she stalks off in the opposite direction - still yelling back at you, venom dripping from every one of her words.
  4134. > “What we’re about to do here, I need to trust. Not have a bunch of ‘crew’ who’re going to fuck off the second things get tougher than-”
  4135. > “Káne isychía! You will stop talking!”
  4136. > Neither yourself nor Alicia had heard Kalendae’s approach.
  4137. > Not until she seemed to melt out of a shadow, golden-yellow eyes amid a pool of purple and navy-blue.
  4138. > ...nor do you remember her seeming that massive.
  4139. > It’s enough to even make you rear back, ears laid flat and tail slashing.
  4140. > “What the hell do you want, po-”
  4141. > Unleashing a throaty growl that shows off her canines, Kalendae forces Alicia back into silence.
  4142.  
  4143. > “Let me tell you of the things I have seen, Alicia Millicant. Know that my duty - my purpose - was to protect Equestria… and to ward it. We of the Night Guard were to be both shield and watcher.”
  4144. > Alicia’s mouth drops open, as if she is about to object.
  4145. > Another snarling growl accompanied by webbed, leathery wings snapping open puts a stop to that; Kalendae darts forward and Alicia retreats with wide, white eyes.
  4146. > “Your dam and sire’s home - destroyed. For this, I am sorry. They are dead?”
  4147. > “No, not dead-”
  4148. > “They are hurt?”
  4149. > “O-Only a little bit, but that’s not the fucking p-”
  4150. > This time, Kalendae doesn’t settle for a growl.
  4151. > Having backed Alicia up against the side of one of the structures, she reared up to plant are forehoof to either side of the woman.
  4152. > “My nation - I watched it crumble. My brother and sisters - Night Guards - I do not know what has become of them. Ponies we guarded - sick, dead, scared and we could not help. All this, before we were even captives.”
  4153. > Her mouth twists into a bitter rictus grin.
  4154. > You should stop this.
  4155. > But you aren’t sure if you can.
  4156. > You aren’t sure if you want to.
  4157. > “I do not say your anger is not earned, Alicia Millicant. Just know that we lost our home too. And since then, I have known much more pain. I have known imprisonment. I have known hobbles piercing flesh-”
  4158. > Kalendae’s wings open again; you can see the same dawning horror in Alicia’s eyes as she comes to understand what the rings lining the front of each were for.
  4159. > “-I have known the shame only a mare - or a woman - may know. Abandon our oaths, you say? Our promises, when we are pushed? I say I am still trying to keep my oaths, in spite of a hurricane falling on us!”
  4160. > For several long moments Alicia’s mouth works soundlessly.
  4161. > You aren’t sure what she is going to say.
  4162. > Letting this go on, though, seems to be a poor choice.
  4163.  
  4164. > Stepping forward, you place a wing across Kalendae’s withers.
  4165. “It’s enough. Your point’s made.”
  4166. > Kalendae’s eyes - which had dropped to little more than knife-thin slits - finally flick around.
  4167. > She seems to come to a realization of what she had been doing.
  4168. > Backing down from the wall she’d pinned Alicia against, she lets her wings close - but does not back down.
  4169. > “...think on this, Alicia Millicant. Think on this before you condemn us all; think on what promises we here still hold.”
  4170. > For a long time after that, the only noise is the soft scuffing and clopping of hooves on concrete as you lead Kalendae away into the night.
  4171. > When she does speak, it’s with an almost hollow voice.
  4172. > “Another failure of mine, I believe.”
  4173. “What?”
  4174. > “If Alicia Millicant tells that I charged her, I think I will be sent away from this job… or perhaps we all will.”
  4175. “Okay, one-”
  4176. > You stop her, swinging around to face the Thestral mare.
  4177. “-one, no, you will not be getting sent away. You didn’t bloody her. And I’m not going to let them just send you right back to… to any of that. I’ll testify she provoked you.”
  4178. > “Did she?”
  4179. “I was just about to snap at her myself.”
  4180. > Not as badly as she had, but that’s irrelevant.
  4181. > “I have been… aggravated of late. Cog Whirl’s - reluctance fills my skull, rough and scratchy like sand caught in my wings.”
  4182. “At some point somepony was going to say it, Kalendae. I’m glad you gave some extra truth to it, though.”
  4183. > The mare huffs softly, but nods.
  4184. “Now, go-”
  4185. > Get some rest?
  4186. > This was her natural time for getting up.
  4187. “-go get to studying, and let me know if you’re still worrying about this in the morning.”
  4188. > Breaking from your side, Kalendae drops her head into a small bow.
  4189. > “My captain, I thank you. I will go think on this? Meditate, that is the word - I will go meditate on this, then study the guides.”
  4190.  
  4191. “That’s fine. Good night, Kalendae.”
  4192. > “Moon guide your wings, My Captain.”
  4193.  
  4194. --------
  4195.  
  4196. “Yeeeeeesssss!”
  4197. > Your elongated cry of delight turns several heads as you bounce out of the planning trailer, giving a little leap and flutter into the air before touching down again.
  4198. > It had taken reasoning with Thomas.
  4199. > It had taken groveling.
  4200. > It had taken begging, maybe a little prayer, and even Kalendae’s outburst.
  4201. > But come morning, there had been no angry knocking on the door and demands to know why Alicia had been ‘attacked’.
  4202. > Only a simple message from Thomas that she had approved the purchase of-
  4203. > “So, you got your wish, did you? Another Wonderbolt joining this team.”
  4204. > Elation flees and your ears pin back at that scratchy tone.
  4205. > You come down one last time and turn to give Gerard a sharp look.
  4206. “Is that going to be a problem with you?
  4207. > “Perhaps. Perhaps not.”
  4208. > The griffon stands, stretching cat-like with a flick of his tail.
  4209. > “I have not met this ‘Soarin’, and so I cannot judge him.”
  4210. “He’s solid. He’ll work. Isn’t that what you want?”
  4211. > “Judgement will wait until I meet him. But...”
  4212. > Lifting a leg, Gerard examines one of his wickedly-curved foreclaws distantly.
  4213. > “...you Wonderbolts were the finest of your kind. This, I admit, impresses me.”
  4214. “That I’m standing up for a pony I know?”
  4215. > “That you are choosing reasonable ponies to stand up for. Much better a trained and - responsible pony, than the cripple.”
  4216. > Your mood darkens again, but another question you’d meant to ask come bubbling up.
  4217. “Cog Whirl isn’t even crippled. Hurt, yes, but not crippled. And Alicia said you’d been praising Cog, though. What’s with that?”
  4218. > “I told her - rightly - that he is skilled with his talent, and not going to turn on you. But I also said that I believed your judgement of him.”
  4219. > And yet Alicia hadn’t mentioned that at all...
  4220. “...thank you for that.”
  4221.  
  4222. > “You forget, Spitfire, that I am here to ensure Mister Whitworth’s investment is worthwhile. If we are second-guessing each other, the mission will fail. We will fail.”
  4223. > You’re not sure if that’s worth a ‘thanks’; he seems to be putting more faith in principle than in you...
  4224. > “And yet he is troublesome to train. I wonder, will he ever be as good as one not addicted would be?”
  4225. “He will be. And you’re one to be talking about cripples, one-eye.”
  4226. > Gerard recoils, then opens his beak in a facsimile of a smile.
  4227. > “That, I suppose, was a bite I earned. But I know my limits, Spitfire. Gregory Whitworth spared me, a fact for which I am eternally grateful. Even you recognized I could not hope to fly the plane, though.”
  4228. “Well, I’m not giving up on Cog Whirl. You’re going to have to settle for another ‘responsible’ pick instead.”
  4229. > “I can accept this.”
  4230. > Gerard shrugs again
  4231. > “Whatever the reason, my goal is to make this job succeed. Whether you are seeing sense in your choices or pining for the affections of a former teammate…”
  4232. > You stiffen.
  4233. > Pining for the affections of?
  4234. > Did Gerard know?
  4235. > Lips drawing back in a snarl, you whinny and jab a hoof at him.
  4236. “And is wanting a comrade at my side so wrong? What about you, Claw-leader Gerard? A claw-leader has what - fifty, sixty griffons beneath him?”
  4237. > “Approximately.”
  4238. “If you found one of your griffons - one of your under-officers - wouldn’t you try to get one of them in on this as well?”
  4239. > Lowering his claw, Gerard lays himself back down cat-like and watches you through his remaining golden eye.
  4240. > “You do not need to argue with me, Spitfire. Believe it or not, I am actually trying to help you.”
  4241. > A retort dies on your lips.
  4242. > Maybe once - just this once - you could try not to argue with him.
  4243. “I think you’re more trying to help Gregory Whitworth… but, I’m listening.”
  4244. > “I will not deny this.”
  4245.  
  4246. > Gerard ponders a moment, scratching a claw along the concrete pavement.
  4247. > “At the moment, though, yours and his goals align. The better a chance this mission has of succeeding, the more likely your kind are to be free.”
  4248. “...that does make sense. And-”
  4249. > Ugh.
  4250. > This is going to be hard to admit.
  4251. “-I guess I owe you some appreciation. I told you not to make trouble for us, and you haven’t.”
  4252. > “There, you see?”
  4253. > Clicking his beak, Gerard stands.
  4254. > “That was not so difficult after all.”
  4255. “Just don’t expect me to be groveling. Asking you for help about Cog Whirl was bad enough.”
  4256. > “Hah! I will try not to raise my hopes too far.”
  4257. > If your eyes rolled much harder, you’d probably get dizzy.
  4258. > The airborne leap comes without warning:
  4259. > Gerard launches himself into the air, claws outstretched.
  4260. > This time, though, you remember.
  4261. > Rather than flinching away, you stand tall and upright - wings snapping open, but not lifting you from the ground yet.
  4262. > Talons sing a bare hair’s-breadth from your head, and Gerard catches himself to cling to the roofline of a nearby building.
  4263. > You shoot him a triumphant smirk - no panicking pony this time - and he acknowledges you with a nod.
  4264.  
  4265. > Only when he is actually gone do you let out your breath in a great, rushing huff and try not to wobble as the sheer adrenaline rush wears down and blood creases pounding in your ears.
  4266. > That… was close.
  4267. > You’re still not totally sure what you think of Gerard, but at least he wasn’t being as actively obstructive as you’d feared.
  4268. > Anonymous looks up when you flutter back into the Mars’ huge interior; he’d sprawled out on one of the bunks in the lower deck.
  4269. > “So, you managed then?”
  4270. “Barely… but yes.”
  4271. > Apparently hiding your elation hadn’t been something you’d entirely managed.
  4272. > Eh - to Tartarus with it then!
  4273. > You throw yourself into a little trotting dance, whirling about in little circles.
  4274. “Yes! Yes, yes, yes! Soarin is actually going to be coming with us!”
  4275. > “Well, I mean, we still have to ask him-”
  4276. > You roll your eyes again and bat at Anonymous with one wing.
  4277. “That’s the easy part. He’ll come - this was his only real objection. Everything else is just a matter of giving him ‘the eyes’ for long enough.”
  4278. > “...’the eyes’?”
  4279. > You reshape your face into the most startlingly begging expression you can manage - tucking your ears down but not back, widening your eyes, and pulling a lightly pouty frown that is accompanied by a light, almost whining nicker.
  4280. > Anonymous clutches his heart, laughing.
  4281. > “Oh, come on! That’s a weapon right there. How come you never tried that on those foals that one time?”
  4282. “Because foals are pure and unfiltered evil.”
  4283. > You hop up onto the bed, flopping over onto your side with a grin.
  4284. “Also because I only know it works with Soarin. He’s a big softie on the inside.”
  4285. > “Pouting your way into making a subordinate do what you want? Not very professional of you.”
  4286. “Oh, if I was talking to him officially, it’d be an order. Off-duty…”
  4287. > A wicked grin is shot at Anonymous, and he grins back.
  4288. > But then grows sober.
  4289.  
  4290. > “Just tell me this, Spits. Can you be his captain again? You’re not in the service, and we’re going to be packed in pretty tight. Can you be an officer to him too?”
  4291. “I-”
  4292. > Confidence dies in your throat as you ponder that.
  4293. > Could you, really?
  4294. > You sag back down and huff gently.
  4295. “-don’t know. But I can’t - not. I can’t give him up. You know that, right?”
  4296. > “I’m not stopping you, am I?”
  4297. > Anonymous sits up, looking down at you.
  4298. > “Just making sure you know the stakes. Know what you’re getting into. We’re not in fantasyland yet, Spitfire. Just a little longer.”
  4299. “I know, boss. I know.”
  4300. > Soarin’s papers come through two days later.
  4301. > If nothing else about Whitworth, you can say this:
  4302. > His money makes things move fast.
  4303. > After you hear that news, it’s an even more hectic burst of frenetic activity:
  4304. > One last time you head out into the woods to meet with the stallion.
  4305. > Then you bring him back - having shown him the papers - and into one of the sleeping trailers before anyone can spot him.
  4306. > Step #3, get the dirty saddlebags he’d been humping around off; step #4, get that stallion a bath, because woah!
  4307. > If nobody had seen him winging his way back to the sleeping trailers, they must have smelled him!
  4308. > #5, bring him up to speed on what was going on; that could at least happen simultaneously.
  4309. > Six, get his coat trimmed (you lend him the small electric trimmer you used) and teeth brushed (new toothbrush, because ew).
  4310. > And seven…
  4311. > Introductions.
  4312. > You decide it’ll happen at dinner that night; the whole crew had taken to eating together on a regular basis, and so over a dozen pairs of eyes snap up as you step through the door.
  4313. > Soarin follows close behind your tail, his eyes holding their typical calm but a slight lash of his tail betraying a touch of nervousness.
  4314. "Hey, everyone. So, uh... this is Soarin. He's an old, old comrade and good friend of mine, and going to be out new second-crew navigator."
  4315.  
  4316. > He scans the room, taking in faces human and pony.
  4317. > Some of them nod back, and eventually Soarin raises a wing in nervous greeting.
  4318. > "Well, uh... hey everyone."
  4319. "Soarin, going from left to right we've got Cog Whirl-"
  4320. > His eyes still somewhat glaze from the doze he'd been given recently, but thankfully functional.
  4321. "-Renaud Lapier, Alicia Millicant, Claw-leader Gerard Hildesfattir, and at the other table Kalendae of the Night Guard-"
  4322. > Who is currently giving him a look through heavy-lidded eyes that you really, really don't like.
  4323. > "A pleasure to meet you, Lieutenant."
  4324. > Oh you'll bet it is, with how those slitted eyes are shamelessly stuck on his well-toned rump!
  4325. "-aaaand that's Sai Ahura, Michelle, Anonymous you've already met, and our effective boss Thomas Atmos..."
  4326. > If there was one thing that you could always say for Soarin, it was that his laid-back personality did wonders for breaking the metaphorical ice.
  4327. > Even with fans back home, you'd been popular more for your rank than for your attitude.
  4328. > But Soarin?
  4329. > He could work a crowd.
  4330. > Or a dinner-room full of people and ponies he'd only just greeted.
  4331. > Compared to the first time you gathered everyone together and tried to get them to open up, or when you’d brought Cog Whirl in, Soarin’s quickly got the crowd friendly, chatting, and happy.
  4332. > Sidling up to Kalendae, you catch her eyes tracking his rump and promptly jab your wing into her flanks.
  4333. “Eyes only, soldier.”
  4334. > She laughs a heavy, throaty laugh.
  4335. > “Understood, my captain. I will not pursue another’s catch.”
  4336. > Your brows knit.
  4337. “...what’s that supposed to mean?!”
  4338. > But Kalendae only laughs and slips from her seat to grab a bit more food.
  4339. > Rolling your eyes, you glance around the room.
  4340. > Soarin had gathered a small group around him - Logic Gate and Bell Curve both, Thomas, Renaud, and Thomas’ assistant Fred - and was animatedly entertaining them between bites.
  4341.  
  4342. > Judging by his hoof gesturing, you’d guess it’s some tale of flight and chase.
  4343. > Maybe even yours, from the way he occasionally gestures to you - an idea that makes your cheeks warm a little.
  4344. > But what’s more surprising is Cog Whirl.
  4345. > Normally no more than a shadow in the corner - you often had the sense he only attended meals because Kalendae would give him her drill-sergeant routine if he did not - tonight he had eyes for Soarin alone.
  4346. > Not the… appreciative look Kalendae had held for the Wonderbolt, but a kind of glazed-over wondrous look that you’d grown used to seeing from little colts and fillies at shows.
  4347. > Certainly not from a full-grown stallion!
  4348. > And you didn't think he'd been dosed so recently it would still be affecting him; if anyone else's been feeding his habit, you'll be beyond infuriated.
  4349. > Sidling up to the pony, you catch his attention with a wave of one wing.
  4350. "Hey."
  4351. > "...hey."
  4352. > A second later he seems to realize he'd turned to stare at you instead, and his gaze falls away instead.
  4353. "Didn't take you for a Wonderbolts fan, but you've been eyeing him for a while now."
  4354. > "It's not that. I - I don't know. Can't believe you actually managed to find him, and get him on this team too!"
  4355. "Yeah. Neither can I, a bit."
  4356. > You chuckle gently, nudging the stallion's side again.
  4357. > Shock seemed to strip away the most infuriating aspects of the stallion's personality, leaving... something of a respectable pony behind.
  4358. "But hey - what have I been trying to tell you? Things aren't hopeless, Cog. Harmony is still guiding us, somehow. We're going to get through this."
  4359. > He just nods dumbly, like a pony in shock.
  4360. > ...you hope it isn't shock.
  4361. > Admittedly you didn't have a solution to making him cooperate just yet, but outright losing another pony at this point would be disastrous.
  4362.  
  4363. > Pushing those thoughts from your mind, you head back to another group - settling in next to Sai Ahura and listening to Soarin laugh with Logic Gate over some bawdy joke.
  4364. > It's -
  4365. > Relaxing.
  4366. > Surprisingly relaxing to just sit and listen to his voice again.
  4367. > How long has it been since you could do that?
  4368. > Not really think too hard about anything, just listen.
  4369. > Later nightfall finds you resting on the roof of one of the trailers alongside him, the cool late-spring night breeze rippling through your outstretched wings.
  4370. > Soarin rests next to you, silent for now, his eyes tilted up at the sky.
  4371. "...hey. Just - wanted to say. I'm glad you're back."
  4372. > "Glad to be back too, Cap."
  4373. "None of that captain business now. It's bad enough trying to wean Kalendae off of it."
  4374. > “You got it, Spits.”
  4375. > Your eyebrows rise; he hadn’t teased you about it?
  4376. "What, no crack? No joke?"
  4377. > Soarin shrugs.
  4378. > "What can I say, Spits... slavery changes a pony. Would you prefer I did?"
  4379. “You said that before, Soarin. What happened to you?”
  4380. > He doesn’t answer, though his eyes do gain a far-away look.
  4381. “Soarin?”
  4382. > “You ever… ever think of the little cruelties, Spitfire?”
  4383. > Huffing, he lays his head back down - prompting a protective nicker from you.
  4384. > “It’s easy to think about the big, bad things. The whips, the chains, the ponies worked until they’re skin and bones. But the little things… they bite at you too. Like fleas in your coat, until you’re just ground down and left with nothing.”
  4385. “Talk to me, Clipper.”
  4386. > Unfortunately, his old nickname fails to get any real smile from Soarin.
  4387. > If anything the exact opposite:
  4388. > He stiffens up, and takes a few moments longer before he actually explains.
  4389. > “...way I figured it at first, I had it easy. They thought I was cute, huh? So I did all the goofy, jokey stuff I used to do with the ‘bolts. They got the pie love. The somersaults. The puns. They loved me. I was their funny little pony. Then…”
  4390.  
  4391. “Then they turned bad? Hurt you?”
  4392. > “Hurt me?”
  4393. > Soarin laughs aloud, shaking his head.
  4394. > “Oh, no. They wouldn’t lay a finger on me. I just asked for a private room instead of a bed in the corner, and they… shot it down. And I guess that’s when it clicked. I wasn’t somepony to them, I was just a - a big funny talking dog.”
  4395. > He shrugs a little with his wings, and you reposition yourself to cover him with your wing again.
  4396. > “After that, all the wind fell out of my wings. I wasn’t funny anymore, so they sold me to someone else. I did the whole ‘goofy pony’ thing again, they loved it… but I was watching this time. They didn’t care about me. Just the goofy pony. Play along, be funny, or I would get sold off to someone else again and again until it was an owner who would beat me. I could see my whole future, and the jokes weren’t funny anymore. They knew I wouldn’t run away; I was a ‘good boy’. So they left doors open…”
  4397. “...and you took it.”
  4398. > It’s a point, you admit.
  4399. > Anonymous hadn’t just not hurt you (mostly); once he had gotten around to understanding you he had actually cared for your thoughts.
  4400. > That was an important point.
  4401. > And it could hurt just as much as a whip or shock collar.
  4402. > Soarin sighs.
  4403. > "And I know it sounds stupid, because... all the did is not respect me. When other ponies are big hit with so much worse."
  4404. "No. It does make sense. And, I’ve got just one big order for you then: Don't be a dumb colt, Soarin."
  4405. > You lean in against him and rest your cheek to his, ears tickling where they touch.
  4406. "I want you to be exactly yourself. You're right, we're not a hundred percent the same anymore. But that's okay."
  4407. > After a moment, he gives a low nicker and extends his wing across your back as well.
  4408.  
  4409. --------
  4410.  
  4411. > You wake with a wide yawn, flicking your head about to clear the wool from your thoughts as the blanket is pushed off.
  4412. > Another day - and a whole new day it as too!
  4413. > With Soarin on the crew, the whole world seemed a little bit brighter.
  4414. > Even that sense, though, did not prepare you for what Kalendae told you a few hours later:
  4415. > Rubbing her eyes and shaking her head, she settles on her haunches and scratches at an ear with one wing.
  4416. > "It is... impossible to understand. Dén tó pistévo - he is like a whole new pony! The work ethic, the dedication...!"
  4417. "Who are you talking about? Cog?"
  4418. > "Yes!"
  4419. > Rising to her hooves again, Kalendae begins to pace in circles.
  4420. > "I believed he was playing me for a fool at first; however, he has done nothing but learn. I have even seen him sitting with Alicia to learn - and she is teaching him! Has everyone gone mad, or is merely me?"
  4421. "I think it's everyone, but in a good way..."
  4422. > Your muttered response causes Kalendae to turn an ear.
  4423. > "What?"
  4424. "Nevermind. Look, go get some rest, and I'll talk to him... maybe all of them. Just go rest now and don't worry about it."
  4425. > "I will. May your day be more believable than mine, my captain!"
  4426. > ...now to see what this was actually about.
  4427. > Cog Whirl turns out to be not with Alicia, but Renaud and Soarin.
  4428. > Both are hovering over his shoulders, watching as he sketches out something on a paper - pencil dancing in his magic.
  4429. > Wait, his magic?
  4430. > No suppressants?
  4431. "Cog! Can I talk to you a second?"
  4432. > "...yeah. Be right back, guys."
  4433. > You lead him back around the side of the nearest building, then spin around on a hoof and draw a deep breath in preparation to unleash a torrent of questions at him.
  4434. > That torrent is checked, though, by what you see.
  4435. > The empty, uncaring, look you'd come to expect from him is...
  4436. > Well, not totally gone.
  4437. > But cracking.
  4438. > There's a hint, a gleam of light in his eyes.
  4439. > A hope.
  4440. "...what's going on, Cog?"
  4441. > He huffs gently, looking away.
  4442.  
  4443. > "Guess you don't really have any reason to believe me, but... It was Soarin."
  4444. "Soarin?"
  4445. > "Well, more that you found him, I guess. I..."
  4446. > He shuffles nervously, and you extend a wing.
  4447. "Easy there, Cog. I'm not going to be chewing you out. Not this time. A good captain can listen, too."
  4448. > The tension which flows from him is clearly visible; you wonder if that had been one of his real lingering fears too.
  4449. > "I thought... nopony ever gets anything of what they had back, right? That's just - how it is now. Game's over, even if you're free you've got nothing. But then - then you find Soarin, and things all come together..."
  4450. > He swallows.
  4451. > "...maybe it's stupid. Maybe it's dumb. But I think.. if you can... maybe I can too?"
  4452. > In a way, you thought, it was stupid.
  4453. > One pegasus flying through a wind did not change the course of the storm.
  4454. > But...
  4455. > In so many ways, Cog Whirl must have wanted to believe.
  4456. > Must have desired to hope.
  4457. > And now that he had reason to...
  4458. > Who were you to snatch that hope from his hooves, now that he finally dared dream of it?
  4459. > Cog actually jumps in surprise as you lean in to give him a light nuzzle.
  4460. > But then he leans back into it with a small nicker.
  4461. "I'm glad you're thinking like that again, Cog. It wasn't an easy thing for me to come around to either."
  4462. > "Well, it helps that Soarin is, y'know, a pretty cool pony to hang with?"
  4463. > He chuckles awkwardly.
  4464. > "Seriously. Makes me feel calm just hanging around him."
  4465. "Yeah, he's got that vibe alright."
  4466. > "I gotta ask. Were you going to chew me out, before you dragged me back here?"
  4467. > Shuffling your wings, you give a slight nod.
  4468. > No reason to lie.
  4469. "Yeah, I was about ready to start demanding what kind of trick you were after, messing with us..."
  4470. > "Heh."
  4471. > Cog's laugh is awkward, forced.
  4472. > "Well, I'm glad you didn't."
  4473. "I'm glad I didn't do. I'm not a hard-kicking mare all the time, Cog. I don't want to chew you out."
  4474.  
  4475. > A hoof is held out in offering to Cog Whirl - a peace offering.
  4476. "And I'm glad to see you back."
  4477. > You let him head back over - but where had Renaud gone to-
  4478. > "Ehem."
  4479. > Oh.
  4480. > Right behind you.
  4481. > Casting a look over your shoulder, you shoot him a grin.
  4482. "Just so you know, bad idea to sneak up behind a pony. Our kicks go backwards."
  4483. > "Noted."
  4484. > Renaud holds a hand out to you, grinning with his head cocked.
  4485. > “I’m glad you didn’t chew him out.”
  4486. “Oh yeah?”
  4487. > “Yeah. Would’ve stood up for him, and I’d rather not argue it out with you.”
  4488. “That’s good too. Not ending up fighting with my own team-mates - yeah. I’d really rather not.”
  4489. > "Agreed. I don't know what's come over him, but if he's found his place... well, I'm not going to protest."
  4490. "You don't need to tell me, Renaud. You don't need to tell me."
  4491.  
  4492. --------
  4493.  
  4494. > The remaining weeks pass in a whirlwind blitz of training and practice.
  4495. > With Soarin on the team and Cog Whirl back to his senses, there’s nothing left to hold back anyone or anypony.
  4496. > In what seems like a heartbeat, the end is in sight.
  4497. > Departure.
  4498. > Or, looking at it the other way, return.
  4499. > To Equestria.
  4500. > The final night creeps up with alarming rapidity, until at last there’s no more than 18 hours left before it’s time to go.
  4501. > "Alright, everyone."
  4502. > The Mars' lower deck was crowded, beds and hammocks being used for seating to fit all fourteen people together.
  4503. > Anonymous stood in the middle, a bag in one hand and the other hooked on his belt.
  4504. > "I met the most of you some few months ago when they started training us for this. Then, we were just a bunch of - somebodies. And ponies."
  4505. "Tonight, we're a team. Despite our troubles, we're all of us-"
  4506. > Your eyes pass over Gerard.
  4507. "-working together to see this through. No matter our disagreements-"
  4508. > Eyes pass over Alicia.
  4509. "-we've got each others' backs now."
  4510.  
  4511.  
  4512. > "So, since we're going to be shipping out tomorrow afternoon, we thought it would be a good idea if we took one last night to relax."
  4513. > From his bag Anonymous pulls a bottle of golden sloshing liquid.
  4514. > "By the end of tonight, I want to see that this bottle is empty or damn close to it. There's also a couple beers in here if that's your thing."
  4515. > A small round of cheers goes up, particularly from Cog and Kalendae.
  4516. "Tonight... enjoy yourselves. As friends. As teammates. Tell stories. Be open. Have a little fun. Once we hit the portal tomorrow evening, we've got a long stretch of business ahead of us. So - enjoy!"
  4517. > In the back, Thomas starts to sing.
  4518. > "Anchors aweigh, my boys - anchors aweigh! Through our last night on shore..."
  4519. > "That's the navy's song, Thomas."
  4520. > "And American at that. Wrong country man, you aren't even drunk yet!"
  4521. > "Oh, let him sing. He wasn't that bad."
  4522. > “Yeah, right. What’s your definition of good, then?”
  4523. > Just like that, the spirit of the moment is set.
  4524. > Bottles are opened, bags of chips and pretzels passed around.
  4525. > Laughter rises.
  4526. > Even Alicia manages to find a little smile, even if she mostly stays hunkered silently in the corner.
  4527. > Alcohol - the universal tongue-loosener - is flowing freely, and soon a few separate conversations are going.
  4528. > You find yourself among fellow company - Anonymous on one side, his hand on your mane; Soarin on your other, his flank pressed to yours.
  4529. > It's still a small enough space that everyone is close enough to hear.
  4530. > Logic Gate is going on about some weird accident in the Academy for Gifted Unicorns, Sai is laughing with Gerard and Thomas, and Renaud...
  4531. > Renaud is conversing in whispers with Cog.
  4532. > You aren't sure what about, but given the slow flush creeping onto his face and the way his eyes periodically slip to Kalendae, you can guess it's something about how to approach the opposite sex.
  4533. > Or maybe something about what comes after the whole 'approaching' part.
  4534.  
  4535. > Cog Whirl catches you looking, and you shoot him a long salacious wink.
  4536. > Oooh, yeah. There's that blush.
  4537. > Anonymous looks over at your low laugh.
  4538. > "Something up, Spitfire?"
  4539. "Naaah, nothing."
  4540. > He shoots you a little grin, knowing your different 'nothings' (#4, 'I just did something rude but you don't need to know about it') and goes back to his drink.
  4541. > "Hey, Gerard-"
  4542. > Michelle calls from across the room.
  4543. > "-I've heard a lot from Logic Gate and Bell Curve about Equestria, but what about where you were? What was all that like?"
  4544. > Instantly you tense up.
  4545. > What stories would he tell?
  4546. > Something from the war years?
  4547. > No, Gerard wouldn't be that stupid.
  4548. > But he was drunk, and-
  4549. > "Ahhh, my aerie? That is what they are called, the great Griffon fortress-peaks."
  4550. > Settling back on the cot, the old griffon looks down at his claws - flexing them slowly.
  4551. > "...yes, very different from Equestria. Our lands, things are not given to us as much as taken when we can."
  4552. > He taps a talon against a bulkhead, then straightens up - a gleam in his eyes.
  4553. > "I will tell you this: In the valley beside our aerie, there was one great pine - hundreds, perhaps a thousand years old. It may have been a seedling when the ponies came to Equestria! But it was also the greatest perch for young hunters to take. Not for sight, but in challenge! You see, for a tree so tall, it would also sway with every wind to strike it. And our aerie, we saw many winds."
  4554. > Sitting up onto his haunches, Gerard fluffs his wings and cocks his head - feathers tilting this way and that as his whole body seems to sway in imitation of the tree.
  4555.  
  4556. > "If you could catch good prey while swaying in such a tree, you were a good hunter. The young hunters, they would try to hunt from the crown to prove themselves. One day a keen, fresh hunter, Garron, challenged the daughter of Aerie. If he could hunt there while she could not, then he would take her rank and her pride. But ah, he was young and she was known as a fierce hen with strong skills - how could he? So she humored Garron, thinking to humiliate him."
  4557. > Everyone in the cabin has paused, now paying clear attention to the old griffon's story.
  4558. > He was clearly a talented storyteller; even you have to admit he was drawing you in!
  4559. > "So, what happened? He get her?"
  4560. > Gerard half-opens his beak in a little grin, a sparkle in his eye.
  4561. > "Oh, he did. And he caught his prey, too - but nothing but a little rabbit. The others laughed him down, and the next day the hen flew out to take the challenge. But she fell sick and dropped from the pine without prey! For you see, in the night Garron had stealthily snuck out with a friend and sawed into the side of the tree so that it would sway harder than ever before; he hid his work with mud and bark."
  4562. > Immediately the cabin breaks out in a raucous mix of voices; several people stand, and you actually almost think you feel the plane shift a touch under the sudden movement!
  4563. > "-completely not allowed-"
  4564. > "-didn't she notice-"
  4565. > "-thinking-"
  4566. > "-must have heard the sawing at night-"
  4567. > "-absolutely cheating-"
  4568. > At this last moment, Gerard's claws tighten - scraping along the metal of the bulkhead.
  4569. > "Cheating?! There is no such thing as cheating. We live hard lives and prepared for harder. You do not cheat in life. You win."
  4570. > That answer leaves a silence which you fill.
  4571. "So, you knew one of them? The hen, or Garron?"
  4572. > "Knew?"
  4573. > Gerard laughs.
  4574.  
  4575. > "He was my commander. My claw-leader, I one of his Talons. When I challenged him for command, I knew to check for sabotage. And a good thing too: He had somehow snuck in and cut the straps on my armor, the old crow."
  4576. > You shake your head in disbelief.
  4577. > If you hadn't experienced the cunning ferocity and deadly skill of the Griffon soldiers yourself, you'd have been hard-pressed to believe that anything which spent half its time sabotaging itself could function at all..."
  4578. > Across the cabin, Logic Gate snorts with a flick of her tail.
  4579. > "Well, I never saw anything like that when I was a little filly. Though, I can't say I didn't get myself into all kinds of trouble..."
  4580. "...oh yeah? What'd you do?"
  4581. > Winking, she lights her horn and takes another swig of her bottle.
  4582. > "I was always trying to get a bunch of friends together to weave some big new spell. Figured if I did something really impressive, they'd have to at least give me a shot at getting into one of the big schools."
  4583. > She screws up her face, thinking hard thought the haze of alcohol.
  4584. > "Like... let's see. There was this one time I found my friend, Hedge Lily, and had her go to work with some plants. I figured if I could cast a 'come to life' spell on the plants - that's like a super, super complex spell - while incorporating her magic, I could make them grow faster on their own, without an Earth Pony around!"
  4585. > "Let me guess -"
  4586. > Cog Whirl cuts in, a sardonic grin on his face.
  4587. > "- animated plants?"
  4588. > "Animated plants."
  4589. > Nodding in agreement, Logic Gate huffs softly but grins.
  4590. > "Then I thought I could teach them how to water themselves - you know, 'if your roots are dry, then water, count to three and stop, check again', that sort of thing. But I never got it right, and they just ran everywhere..."
  4591. > She laughs.
  4592. > "I was a little bit of a mule back then."
  4593. > "Hey! Spitfire - Spitfire, give us a story. You must've had some good ones from the Wonderbolts!"
  4594.  
  4595. > The call comes from Renaud, and you grin at the enthusiasm of a fellow flyer.
  4596. "Damn right I do. Okay, so there was this one time we had a new batch of recruits. There were a couple of real promising ones - Rainbow Dash, and, uh, Lightning Dust…”
  4597. > More and more faces turn towards you as you talk.
  4598. > At some point, you looked about and realized nearly the entire crew was watching.
  4599. "...so I'm chewing her out of this stupid tornado, and... oh, man. You should have seeeen the look on Lightning Dust's face when I came back after her. Damn, Soarin. You remember that?"
  4600. > "Exactly like you told it, Cap'n. No fluff about it. Pretty sure that was the angriest I’ve ever seen you."
  4601. > You nudge him playfully.
  4602. “Nah, there’ve been worse times. Nobody actually got hurt then, I wasn’t that bad!”
  4603. > “If you say so, Captain!”
  4604. “Ah, come on. You tell a story now. I did my fair share.”
  4605. > “...nah, I think you’ve got it down plenty good.”
  4606. > The story peters out, leaving a quick silence in the room, quickly broken by a soft laugh from Renaud.
  4607. > “I am really, really glad we can’t just make our own tornadoes here.”
  4608. “Oh yeah? Well, what do you deal with?”
  4609. > “Ah, let me think… well, when you go to drop foam on a fire, you need to be careful of the updraft. So we always nose-down a little bit coming in, and - boom! Updraft nudges you up. Makes it more accurate, too.”
  4610. “A dive-release, yeah.”
  4611. > “Well, this time there was no updraft. Don’t know why, just a freak chance. So, we don’t come up, and after a second we realize we’re all in trouble. Stick comes back, engines to full throttle, I swear we scraped some treetops…”
  4612. > Chuckling, Renaud leans back against the Mars’ wall and takes a long sip of his drink.
  4613. > “I don’t think anyone up there didn’t have a tight sphincter.”
  4614.  
  4615. > Across the room, Alicia pipes up:
  4616. > “That was one of Terry’s first runs too, remember? He came down so white it was like he’d left all his blood back there when we pulled up.”
  4617. > “Hah! Damn right he did, Terry…”
  4618. > The cabin’s mood instantly turns cloudy.
  4619. > Before it can grow too sour, you raise a bottle clutched in one leg.
  4620. “Hey - to everyone who isn’t here anymore, yeah?”
  4621. > After a moment, Gerard nods.
  4622. > His own bottle rises, tilted to aim towards you.
  4623. > "To those lost to the winds and skies. May they ever fly at our sides."
  4624. > Other bottles and cups rise too, lifting together as various toasts and benedictions are made.
  4625. > And to your relief, the clouded mood passes.
  4626.  
  4627. > Hours tick past.
  4628. > The Mars' bunks grow empty as people return for their last night in the trailers' more luxurious beds.
  4629. > You have camped out on one of the Mars' tailplanes, Soarin close beside.
  4630. > Though the day had been a hot one, the plane's metal skin quickly gave up the day's heat once the sun was gone; it was still cool enough for him to comfortably rest side-to-side with you.
  4631. "...hey Soarin? Have I mentioned how glad I am you're coming along with us for this?"
  4632. > "Plenty 'nough, Captain."
  4633. "Quit that. We're up here alone now. You don't have to keep trying to embarrass me!"
  4634. > "As you say... Cap'n."
  4635. > You laugh and give him a playful shove with one wing.
  4636. > Rather than just take it, he squirms forward to lay the wing across his back - head twisting around to begin nosing at the span of golden-yellow feathers.
  4637. > You lay your head down on crossed forehooves and accept the preening with a gentle sigh of happiness.
  4638. "Ohhh... do you have any idea how long it's been since I had a good, proper preening?"
  4639. > "Mmmm... nine moons, three weeks, four days-"
  4640. > Your eyes roll and you resist the urge to batter his face with the wing again.
  4641. > "What, Anonymous never did this for you?"
  4642. "He's tried, but it's like teaching a foal. An earth pony foal! No idea what feels right or wrong until I tell him."
  4643. > "Huh."
  4644. > A pause, and then you jump a bit as a not-quite loose feather is tickled at.
  4645. "Hey! Careful there, Soarin. You know my primaries don't come loose that quickly."
  4646. > "Sorry, sorry..."
  4647. > You shoot him a glare, and are met by an honest and warm smile.
  4648. > Had he done that on purpose...?
  4649. > Resolving not to care, you drop your head back to your hooves.
  4650. > Soon his gentler, more caring touch returns.
  4651. > Electric tingles shoot down your spine as he works.
  4652. > "At least I can tell you've been keeping your wings in shape."
  4653. "Don't flatter me, Soarin. I know I'm not the flier I used to be."
  4654. > A low, long sigh escapes you.
  4655.  
  4656. "I'm keeping myself fit, but all those months without flying... for a mare my age, you don't recover from something like that."
  4657. > Soarin rises, circling to your other side.
  4658. > That wing is obligingly extended as he settles down onto it.
  4659. > "That's okay, Spitfire. I'm here for you now, and you don't have to be afraid of falling behind, or anything."
  4660. "Hah, hah."
  4661. > Still, you lean in to him and take in his familiar scent.
  4662. > Your eyelids are growing heavy, heartbeat slowing; drowsiness is starting to claim you as the minutes tick by.
  4663. > The beers you'd had finally catching up.
  4664. > Have to pay the price some time, huh?
  4665. "Hey, Soarin? I think I'm turning in. Going to try and sleep this booze off fast before tomorrow."
  4666. > "Aww. Not staying here?"
  4667. > You still manage a laugh as you stand, stretching with spine-popping reach.
  4668. > Then you pause.
  4669. > There was something in his voice, something you'd not heard in - a long, long time.
  4670. > Desire.
  4671. > For you.
  4672. > You look back, and yeah - there was that old bashful look on his face.
  4673. > That look that says "I want you" and "I'm worried you won't think I'm good enough".
  4674. "Well, well..."
  4675. > Turning the rest of the way around, you lean in with a low grin.
  4676. "...is this what I think it is, Soarin?"
  4677. > "Depends. How dirty are you thinking?"
  4678. > Your eyebrows rise; that was rather forward.
  4679. > Still, though.
  4680. > It had been a long while, since...
  4681. > Well, since anything.
  4682. > And even longer if 'anything' was a category excluding your hoof.
  4683. > Something electric runs through your belly, ending with a twinge between your legs.
  4684. > That...
  4685. > ...was awfully fast.
  4686. > But then again, when else?
  4687. > So long you'd been away from Soarin - dreaming of better times with him, when you'd been able to share a quiet comfortable laugh or something more intimate.
  4688. > This was likely to be the last real night you had before going on a weeks-long job, a job where there would be little to no privacy for anything like this.
  4689.  
  4690. > Perhaps seeing your hesitance, Soarin rises and stretches too, giving you a comfy little smile.
  4691. > "Too much, huh? Nah, it's okay. I get it. I just got back, and-"
  4692. > He turns away; whether or not deliberately, in the process he also gives you a superb show of well-toned flank and rump in the glow of the lamps.
  4693. > You can feel your tail twitch.
  4694. > Unf.
  4695. > To Tartarus with this risk!
  4696. > You've been dragged into chains and into this job with blackmail.
  4697. > Once, just once, you can do something you want to do.
  4698. > Stop being Spitfire the slave, the pilot, the leader, and be Spitfire the mare who wants to get herself nice and filled up.
  4699. > Before he can take another step away you dart forward and plant a fierce kiss straight on his lips.
  4700. > Soarin, of course, goes stock-still as muzzle meets his.
  4701. > When he softens into the touch, you pull away.
  4702. "If you want more than that, you're going to have to keep up."
  4703. > And so he does - first in the air, a darting and playful chase very much unlike the first pursuits he had lead you on.
  4704. > Whooping and laughing amid a slightly alcohol-fueled buzz, you loop and cavort through the clouds.
  4705. > Finally you give up, touching down for a landing on the edge of the facility and galloping further in past the hulking Mars airframes.
  4706. "C'mon, Clipper. Keep up!"
  4707. > He does, though barely.
  4708. > For that matter, you feel more winded than you'd expect!
  4709. > "Where are you - are we - I mean, won't the others-"
  4710. > A tiny voice in the back of your head whispers that might not really be enough.
  4711. > But right now the urge - the need - calling from beneath your tail is far, far louder.
  4712. “Shh. We’ll just go - go find a cloud or something.”
  4713. > “Someone might see us!”
  4714. > You giggle softly.
  4715. "Someone? C'mon, Soarin - you think people look out of plane windows with telescopes? There's nobody up there. We'll roll the cloud over. Besides, what else would you do?"
  4716. > "I... I dunno. There's a good quiet spot off in the forest-"
  4717. > You give another giggle-snort.
  4718.  
  4719. "Not unless you want to be heard. Remember, Kalendae? Bat instincts? Up at night? Better to go way, way up where we're harder to find."
  4720. > "Oh yeeeeah..."
  4721. > At least he has the good sense to look embarrassed; you drag a feather-tip along his side teasingly and nibble at a wing-root.
  4722. "If you're that eager, you know, why don't your just pin me down and take me right here, huh?"
  4723. > The question had been meant rhetorically, but a moment later you find yourself upside-down on the pavement with Soarin straddling over you.
  4724. > "Careful what you wish for there-"
  4725. "Woah, now lovercolt."
  4726. > "Hey, you literally asked for it."
  4727. > You grin through the bits of mane that have ended up flopped over your face.
  4728. "Don't I know it. Just don't throw me around too hard on the pavement. Wait until we get to the cloud for tha-"
  4729. > "Spitfire?"
  4730. > Both of you freeze.
  4731. > Time itself seems to turn sluggish as you turn your head to the trailer door, where Anonymous was peering out.
  4732. > "What're you up to out he-"
  4733. > His eyes fall on you - on the obvious situation, you on your back with Soarin crouched over you and both your wings spread feather-tip to feather-tip.
  4734. > "O-Oh."
  4735. > Immediately you can feel the heat of your flush.
  4736. "Hey, A-Anonymous."
  4737. > He had come around the corner of a building, no flashlight in his hand or anything to warn you.
  4738. > Hell, he must've been damn close to tip-toeing around if you didn't hear him coming!
  4739. > "I'm, um. I'm breaking up something right now, huh?"
  4740. "No. Um, well."
  4741. > It wasn't unusual to get a hint of who had been up to what, or was feeling a little - excited.
  4742. > Scents and all.
  4743. > To be caught tail-up, out-of-the-sheath (though thankfully you didn't think he could see that), just short of having Soarin in you?
  4744. > Bad.
  4745. "Maybe, yeah."
  4746. > A painful silence follows, during which Soarin at least has the good sense to climb off of you with a little leap.
  4747. > "So. Um, I'll just - leave you two be then."
  4748. "Wait-"
  4749.  
  4750. > But he's already moving off, slipping away into another pool of darkness beyond the occasional buzzing lamps' cones of light.
  4751. > Too late.
  4752. > You groan, clopping your head down on the pavement.
  4753. > Ow.
  4754. > That was a mistake.
  4755. > Another mistake.
  4756. > It's not just sheer awkwardness you're feeling, though.
  4757. > Why does this hurt inside too?
  4758. > You hadn't been expecting that at all.
  4759. > It feels...
  4760. > Like a betrayal.
  4761. > "Spitfire?"
  4762. > Rolling back onto your belly, you stand up again.
  4763. > "Everything alright?"
  4764. > You shake your head with a little huff and tail-flick.
  4765. "Sorry, Soarin. I think - I think I'm out for tonight."
  4766. > Mood: Officially killed.
  4767. > "Oh. I, um. Yeah, I get it."
  4768. > He looks down, wings folding, and you give him a nuzzle in apology - but a brief nuzzle, with none of the passion you had shared moments earlier.
  4769. > "Another time, then."
  4770. "Yeah, probably. Another time."
  4771. > Though not soon - the odds of finding another moment to yourselves in the next few weeks was low.
  4772. > Somehow, though, you can't even bring yourself to look forward to such an occurrence.
  4773. > That strange twisting in your heart returns every time you try.
  4774. "Goodnight, Soarin. I'm heading back to my half of the crew; you go back to yours."
  4775. > "'kay. See you tomorrow, Spits."
  4776. > He does, you think, sound a little disappointed.
  4777. > That hurts too.
  4778. > You turn and head back towards your own trailer.
  4779. > At least for a few steps before your alcohol-clouded brain realizes that wasn't the direction Anonymous had been going.
  4780. > At all.
  4781. > Between the interruption of the moment and that particular revelation the veil of booze is parted; it suddenly occurs to you that something odd is going on.
  4782. > Anonymous had been going to bed; why was he heading that direction...?
  4783. > Doing a complete about-face, you turn back and quickly find the Mars' side door unlocked and open.
  4784. > Stepping in to the lower deck, you find nothing but a few remnants of the burnt-out party that hadn't been collected and taken away.
  4785. "Anonymous?"
  4786.  
  4787. > Despite the small, enclosed space your voice barely carries thanks to the sound-muting cladding they had installed.
  4788. > Good for sleeping; not so great now.
  4789. > Not until the third repetition does his head appear through the aft staircase up to the upper deck.
  4790. > "Oh... Spitfire."
  4791. "Hey. What are you doing up there?"
  4792. > For a second he looks at you suspiciously.
  4793. > "Uh. Actually, I'm, uh..."
  4794. "Anonymous."
  4795. > "What?"
  4796. "I was a captain for years. My pony-shit detector is a finely honed instrument."
  4797. > For a moment Anonymous looks like the foal caught with a hoof in the candy jar.
  4798. > "...I want to go take a look at whatever it is they've got back there."
  4799. "Wait, up in the locked room?"
  4800. > "Yeah. They're all dead asleep, there isn't going to be a better time!"
  4801. "...do you have any idea what it will mean if we get caught?!"
  4802. > "I have to know, Spitfire! I - I know they've probably got everything bolted down and whatever in there, but I've got to be sure."
  4803. "Yeah, but-"
  4804. > Wings shuffling awkwardly, you snort.
  4805. > "Come on. Don't tell me you're not super curious what it is they've got back there!"
  4806. "If they find us out, they'll probably throw us out! Throw everypony out! What if it's alarmed?!"
  4807. > "No way. They'd have tested it while they were fitting out. And all the - the vibrations in flight? It'd go off so often!"
  4808. "You can't know that for sure!"
  4809. > "Like it or not, I'm doing it."
  4810. > This time you give a real snort.
  4811. > If you tried to fight him, odds were it wouldn't end well either.
  4812. > And besides, you have to admit - there was a little curiosity in your heart too...
  4813. "Ugh, fine. I'll - I'll just sit by the stairs, let you know if anyone's coming."
  4814. > Immediately he breaks in to a wide smile.
  4815. "That's the idea! C'mon."
  4816. > While you move to the top of the stairway leading to the aft upper deck, he goes straight to the ominously-locked door.
  4817. > Anonymous sits in front of the door, doing - something to the lock.
  4818.  
  4819. >>34258147
  4820.  
  4821. > Something you don't want to look at too closely, because if you did then the old officer in you - the mare who sometimes bent the rules, but would not break the law - would be horrified.
  4822. > You can't help but let out a long, heavy sigh.
  4823. > When had things come to this?
  4824. > Anonymous looks up, head tilted.
  4825. > "Everything alright over there?"
  4826. "Yeah, just... thinking."
  4827. > "Oh..."
  4828. > He looks back down, but seems to be just staring at his phone.
  4829. "...do you even know what you're doing over there?"
  4830. > "I have like... a dozen youtube videos here on lockpicking. One's for this actual model, I think. I can do this."
  4831. "Oh."
  4832. > There's another long passage of silence, during which you get the sense there isn't much going on over there.
  4833. > A suspicion that's borne out when he speaks again:
  4834. > "...so, you and, uh, Soarin..."
  4835. "Yeah..."
  4836. > "Huh."
  4837. > Another long silence, and then-
  4838. > "Guess I should have figured, with how happy you were to have him around."
  4839. "I... didn't talk about it much."
  4840. > "Yeah, I noticed."
  4841. > You wince.
  4842. > It's hard not to notice the touch of bitterness in his voice.
  4843. "Tonight, uh... it... just kind of snuck up on us."
  4844. > Truthfully, you aren't sure exactly did it.
  4845. > Maybe the alcohol.
  4846. > Anonymous' only response, though, is a soft 'oh' that is barely audible despite the near silence.
  4847. > Only the scratching of his makeshift lockpick.
  4848. > You groan and flop onto your back.
  4849. > Absent any kind of circulation, the air in the plane was growing hot, still, and stifling.
  4850. > Of course he couldn't open a window, and you had promised to stay with Anonymous and keep watch.
  4851. > But if it got any worse you weren't going to be able to do much of a good job wa-
  4852. > "Fuck!"
  4853. > He slams a fist against the door; combined with the swear it sends you scrambling to your hooves and whinnying in surprise.
  4854. "Anonymous! Tartarus damn you, we're Manticore food if we get caught in here-"
  4855. > But he's already upright - gathering up his things and heading for the stairs down to the lower deck.
  4856.  
  4857. > Brusquely pushing past you, he barely pauses on his way down.
  4858. > "I've got to get - to get through in to there. I'm not going to just - just fly around some fucking black box full of fuck knows what-"
  4859. "Where are you even going now?!"
  4860. > "Up to the cockpit. There's - there's the access passage through the wing, between the cockpit and that room."
  4861. "You're going to squeeze through that tiny little thing?! What if they locked the other side?"
  4862. > Hopping to your hooves again, you follow him down, through the lower deck, and up the circling stairway to the cockpit.
  4863. > "Damn right I am. Got to check it, got to see!"
  4864. > Check it...?
  4865. > Oh.
  4866. > OH.
  4867. > Anonymous has already turned to head back past the engineer's station to the rear of the cockpit, and was fumbling with the lever to get the access passage's hatch open.
  4868. > Still, you force yourself between him and the wall.
  4869. "This isn't like Eddie, Anonymous. They're not going to have loose things flying around in there."
  4870. > "How the hell can you say that?! Do you even know what's there?"
  4871. "No, but I know they're not stupid. They're professionals. They're-"
  4872. > "Not my crew! I always check. I have to check."
  4873. "Anonymous, you're drunk."
  4874. > He pauses, as if finally realizing what should have been obvious nearly half an hour ago.
  4875. > "...no I'm not. I'm still talking fine. You don't get it, Spitfire; I have to check. What the hell, don't you want to know what's back there?"
  4876. "There's more to being drunk than that. I had some drinks too, and trust me: You're drunk."
  4877. > His face tightens, expression hardening into something angry.
  4878. > "Does it matter?"
  4879. "Yes, it does. If you were under my command, I'd be sending you the barracks right now. You're way out of control."
  4880. > "Unless I'm Soarin, huh? Then it's fun time?"
  4881. > The second he says it, dawning realization crosses his face.
  4882. > A singular look that says 'yeah, I just fucked up'.
  4883. > Rearing up with a whinny, you place a forehoof on each shoulder and push him back.
  4884. > "Woah, hey, hey-!"
  4885. "Sit."
  4886.  
  4887. > Leaning in forces him back, until he falls into the flight engineer's chair.
  4888. > When he tries to stand, you do the only thing that you can think of:
  4889. > Hop up in the chair and sit straight down in his lap.
  4890. > The seat creaks concerningly, but doesn't budge.
  4891. "...now. If you were my pony, we'd be having a discipline hearing in the morning. But you're not. You're a lot, lot more to me than any subordinate or superior ever was."
  4892. > At first his head had been turned away, but now he looks back at you - a hand traveling up to rest on your shoulder.
  4893. > You extend a wing in return - circling his arm to touch his shoulder - and give a low nicker.
  4894. "To answer you, I do want to know what's back there. I really, really do."
  4895. > Shaking your head, you shift the wing to brush his cheek with a few feather-tips.
  4896. > "But - checking how they secured it-"
  4897. "I know, Anonymous. I know. But risking everything picking locks and dragging yourself through pitch-black service passages? No. Enough."
  4898. > You're breaking through; he rests his elbow on the table and his head in that palm.
  4899. > In turn, you rest your head against his chest.
  4900. "This isn't you, Anonymous. You're drunk, and it's messing with your head."
  4901. > "...what do we do now, Spitfire?"
  4902. "We go back. We sleep. And in the morning, you'll still be worried... but you'll also be feeling a lot better."
  4903. > "I... guess."
  4904. > Twisting yourself around, you turn around and lean your side into him.
  4905. "This hasn't been easy, Anonymous. It's still not going to be easy; we've got so much out of our control. Especially for you, seeing that I'm... close with Soarin. It's scary. It makes you want to fight. But I'm still your co-pilot. I'm still here for you, and please  - I want you to still listen to me."
  4906. > Though, was it only the drinking that made remembering feeling Soarin's warmth pressing down on you feel like a betrayal of Anonymous?
  4907. > The fog of alcohol conjuring a mirage of something that was not?
  4908.  
  4909. > Or...
  4910. > Nevermind.
  4911. > Not the right moment.
  4912. > "Doesn't seem to be bugging you that much."
  4913. > His hand is on the back of your head, though, petting gently in long and slow strokes.
  4914. "Maybe.. maybe I'm used to it. Got broken into that feeling of being helpless when I was first captured; I still hate it, but it doesn't eat at me day to day anymore."
  4915. > "Is it wrong if I feel a little jealous?"
  4916. "Hey, if you wanna trade places I'll take you up on that deal!"
  4917. > A mutual embittered laugh is shared, both voices raised in recognition of how awkward a situation this was.
  4918. > "So... I guess... I guess you should probably help me back out to the trailers."
  4919. "Unless you want to start sleeping in the tiny cots in here a night early, yep."
  4920. > "Hell no."
  4921. > His fingertips are on your spine, sending little shivers up and down it and most convincingly arguing against that position.
  4922. > When you speak, your voice is a slurred half-murmur.
  4923. "Same. They're barely big enough for one pony, and we tend to like sleeping close together. I'll be missing that."
  4924. > "Aww."
  4925. > Patting your withers one last time, he nudges you down from his lap.
  4926. > "C'mon. Let's sleep."
  4927. > You walk him back, all the way, with a wing stretched out and wrapped around him.
  4928.  
  4929. ------
  4930.  
  4931. > The slight hangover the next morning is annoying, but mostly gone by noon.
  4932. > Though still a little achy, some two hours after lunch you are still climbing back into Anonymous’ old plane’s cockpit and going through the familiar old pre-flight checks.
  4933. > The Catalina sputters, putters, and roars to life - like a beast shaking itself to life after a winter’s hibernation.
  4934. > This flight, you two would make alone - re-connecting with the crew once you were back in Equestria.
  4935. > It occurs to you that this was probably the last time you would have some time alone with Anonymous for - weeks, possibly months.
  4936. > Until this miserable job was done.
  4937. > “Spitfire? Set our heading, squawk, and frequency.”
  4938. “Got it.”
  4939. > As you punch in the number, you also glance back to Anonymous again.
  4940. > If he had any concerns about where you were going, he didn’t seem to be showing it.
  4941. > Or about what had happened.
  4942. > Just his typical focus on the flight.
  4943. “Hey, Anonymous?”
  4944. > “Yeah, Spits. Hey, listen. About last night, I, uh… I’m sorry. I guess you were right; I’m scared shitless too. But I’m not used to it, so it’s getting to me.”
  4945. > You let a slight grin creep onto your features.
  4946. “Good on you admitting it, but not what I was going to say.”
  4947. > “O-Oh.”
  4948. > Or at least not consciously what you were going to say.
  4949. “Just… I dunno. S’good to have you along, somehow.”
  4950. > “D’awww.”
  4951. > Anonymous’ hand lifts from the wheel to reach over and scratch between your ears.
  4952. > “You really are worried, aren't you?"
  4953. "I guess - yeah. Going back all over again... I don't think any of the others are going to make trouble or run off, and the whole thing seems pretty well planned out..."
  4954. > "But you worry."
  4955. "But I worry."
  4956. > "S'fine, Spits. Like you said last night, we’ve got every right to be a little nervous. Can I ask you something, though?"
  4957. "Hit me?"
  4958. > "You feeling like running?"
  4959. > Your mouth twitches in a smile.
  4960. "Just a bit."
  4961.  
  4962. > "So do I, Spits. So do I."
  4963. "Before we get to the portal, even. Like right now. Popping the hatch, diving out, and just never looking back."
  4964. > Hooves tightening on the control yoke, you grimace hard.
  4965. "I'm - afraid of what we'll find there again. Last time, it was all about survival and I didn't think about anything else much..."
  4966. > "Now you're scared of really seeing what's left behind."
  4967. "Exactly."
  4968. > A long silence follows - silence, except for the overwhelming and omnipresent roar of the twin engines above you.
  4969. > A silence in which you put a lot of thought in before asking again.
  4970. > Once, twice your mouth opens to ask - is Anonymous jealous?
  4971. > Angry at you, for being with Soarin?
  4972. > Is that why he’d brought up ‘last night’?
  4973. > Does he see you that way?
  4974. > Twice your mouth falls shut again, unable to produce those words.
  4975. > Why can’t you ask it; are you afraid of what his answer would be?
  4976. "Anonymous…”
  4977. > Just ask it, damn it.
  4978. “If you knew what you do now, would you still have bought me?"
  4979. > "Huh? Of course. You're like, a fucking Godsend to me, Prettybird."
  4980. > You're so deep in thought the nickname only draws a modest eyeroll from you.
  4981. "Not what I meant. I mean, you didn't really care back then. That I was a slave. Now... you listen. I know you listen. I know you understand. So, would you have still done it? Bought me? Or if not me, another pony? Would you still have paid money to own someone?"
  4982. > He doesn't answer at first.
  4983. > Not that you expected him to; the question you'd asked was a heavy one.
  4984. > And yet, somehow less heavy than the one you’d originally meant to ask.
  4985. > "...I'll be honest, Spitfire. If I'd had to hire, I might not've made it. And let's be honest, if I'd just let you roam around free back then? You'd have been gone in a fucking blink. I get that."
  4986. "So... you still would have."
  4987.  
  4988. > "Really, really don't know. Maybe not. Maybe tried to be less of an ass to you in the beginning. Maybe made the same deal then I gave Kalendae, Cog, and Gerard now. Do the job, get your freedom."
  4989. "I'd probably have gotten out as soon as I could, then."
  4990. > "Yeah, I know."
  4991. > Anonymous grins, but it's a pained grin that wrinkles up his face.
  4992. > "Half of me's thinking, this is the route that got me the best copilot I could ever ask for. Why should I do it different? Other half's saying, there's gotta be some way better."
  4993. "So in the end...?"
  4994. > He looks over at you.
  4995. > "You're not going to let this go, huh?"
  4996. "....it's what we're doing now that's eating at me like a feather out of place. Not buying them for the crew - that we're helping them go in and just dig more wealth out of Equestria."
  4997. > "Oh. You want to know if it's eating at me the same."
  4998. > His head turns back forward - eyes flicking to the instruments, then to the windshield.
  4999. > "Let me put it this way, Spitfire. If I were to go back, knowing what I do now... I'd be a hell of a lot nicer, knowing what a shitty situation you'd got caught in. Hell, if anything I'd probably want you out of that cage even more. That make sense?"
  5000. > Your heart lifts a little, a rising sense of relief buoying it up.
  5001. "Yeah. That does. Thanks... 'Master'."
  5002. > Anonymous snorts.
  5003. > "Don't push it, Prettybird."
  5004.  
  5005. --------
  5006.  
  5007. > "Hello, Cog. What're you working on there? You’ve got the whole top cover taken off the engine!"
  5008. "Oh, this? Heh. Just poking around the engine. Uh, number four. You count off from left to right, one, two, three-"
  5009. > "I know, silly. Is something wrong with it?"
  5010. "Nah. Well, nothing seriously wrong yet. But I noticed there was a weird buzz when we were flying in. Turns out the oil sump had a loose tube; I think it needs a connection change and that could be real bad if it comes loose weeks down the line."
  5011. > "Real bad, huh?"
  5012.  
  5013. "Well, all the oil would come out. And believe me, these machines don't like working without oil! It's like blood for them."
  5014. > "So we'd what, crash?"
  5015. "Crash? Nah. Renaud's been drilling us on coming back from a bad engine. But it'd slow us down bad, or force us to land if the prop won't feather."
  5016. > "Huh.”
  5017. “Don’t worry. It’ll be done by the time Spitfire and Anonymous get here. I just wanted to tighten it up.”
  5018. > “Good work, then, Cog - making sure everything's working great. One last thing-”
  5019. “Huh?”
  5020. > “Look up - at me, yes. Just like that. Now, you’re not going to tell anyone you saw me here, are you?”
  5021. “I - I don’t - why -?”
  5022. > “Shhh. Don’t worry about that. Just trust me. It’s important. If you do, bad things could happen. Everyone might go away again. Including you.”
  5023. “It’s…”
  5024. > “You don’t want that to happen to you, do you Cog Whirl?”
  5025. “N-No. I-I was just working here. I get it.”
  5026. > “Good. You’re a very, very good stallion, Cog.”
  5027.  
  5028.  
  5029. --------
  5030.  
  5031. > The portal looks nothing like the brief, flickering moment of magical chaos that had dragged you, Anonymous, and the plane to Equestria the last time.
  5032. > For one, it was stable in the long-term.
  5033. > And then there is the size.
  5034. > It does not just fill the windshield.
  5035. > It looms.
  5036. > Like the looking-glass of some monstrous giant, stuck partway into the ground.
  5037. > Or like a window, the last remnant of a building now demolished leaving only that glassy aperture remaining.
  5038. > A whole different landscape visible through crystal-clear pane.
  5039. > Around the edges, light goes fuzzy - twisting and turning, distorting and reflecting, an oil-sheen mirage where magic warped the walls of reality until they snapped asunder.
  5040. > Lining up for your approach path, you watch an inverted mountain seem to lazily swim around the edge of the portal before vanishing entirely:
  5041. > A ghost-image of a recognizable peak, so far behind you it was out of conventional sight even at this altitude.
  5042.  
  5043. "Cocytus control, N803AA. Request transit to Equestria.”
  5044. > The radio pops in your ear, loud and static-rich.
  5045. > “N803AA, Cocytus control. Request confirmed, at Nav 8-3-E come to heading 185 and maintain two-thousand feet for transit. On transit, climb to five-thousand and squawk 2-2-0-2."
  5046. "Copy, 185 at 8-3-E, altitude two thousand and squawk twenty-two oh-two after transit, N803AA."
  5047. > As the Catalina swings into an achingly slow turn, Anonymous mutters softly:
  5048. > "What the hell is a Cocytus, anyway?"
  5049. "Uh, something from somewhere called 'Ancient Greece' apparently. A river to the underworld. I looked it up when we were planning."
  5050. > "To the underworld? Like, Hell? Isn't that kind of offensive?"
  5051. "Do you think they care?"
  5052. > He goes quiet after that.
  5053. > Besides, you think.
  5054. > At the moment, it might not be entirely inaccurate.
  5055. > The portal looms, grows, stretches until is seems to reach from horizon to horizon-
  5056. > Your wings twitch as you pass through it, magic racing down from the tips to fill your body with tingling.
  5057. > As you’d feared, Earth was once again out of seasonal alignment with Equestria; there it had been the beginning of summer, here you detected the first scents and chills of autumn coming on.
  5058. > Time was out-of-whack too; it was getting towards late afternoon when you’d arrived at the portal, but now the sun was still rising from the horizon.
  5059. > Not an hour later you're on the ground again, watching a tug haul the plane into a hangar.
  5060. "So, that's it. The last we'll see of her until this is all over."
  5061. > "Yeah."
  5062. > There's something of an off note in Anonymous' voice, and you look up.
  5063. "Worried they won't take care of her?"
  5064. > "I mean, I know Whitworth paid top dollar to get us a hangar slot, these guys are a good bunch, but... yeah. I almost lost that plane once; I don't want to come back and find she's rusted out."
  5065. "...yeah, I get that. It's our home."
  5066.  
  5067. > "Speaking of which... you sure you got everything in your saddlebags? We can't exactly come back once we're gone."
  5068. > You slap the bags - anchored around your jacket - with a wing.
  5069. "Everything I want, yep."
  5070. > "Right... everything, except home."
  5071. "Except that. Yeah."
  5072. > The remainder of the day is spent traveling:
  5073. > First an hour-long car ride through the Equestrian Special Governance Zone - the lands where ponies nominally had their own government.
  5074. > Allegedly.
  5075. > You watch the land go by with a manner of uncertainty and apprehension.
  5076. > Waiting, you thought, to see some sign of horror or oppression in the streets you go past.
  5077. > For some reason to hate the ones in charge of the Special Governance Zone.
  5078. > There are still signs of past violence:
  5079. > Places where the bricks are obviously new, rebuilt in the past few years; where scorch marks hadn't yet been scrubbed off.
  5080. > But there are not lines of chained ponies marching in the streets.
  5081. > No, if anything it was what wasn't there.
  5082. > Everything felt... muted.
  5083. > No flags of Equestria.
  5084. > Statues of the princesses, vanished.
  5085. > Streets emptier of the throngs who once would have filled them.
  5086. > When you reach the quay where the Mars is waiting, however, Thomas is pacing in front of it with a decidedly worried expression and phone to his ear.
  5087. > Anonymous looks at you, you look at Anonymous, and then stride forward to meet him together.
  5088. > “It’s Whitworth. He’s making a last-second change.”
  5089. > His tone immediately causes a heavy, frigid congealing in your stomach.
  5090. “How bad?”
  5091. > In answer, Thomas holds out the phone and switches it to speaker.
  5092. > “Anonymous? Thomas said you were just about here.”
  5093. “Yeah, Anonymous and Spitfire both.”
  5094. > “Oh, Spitfire too… well, that’s good enough I guess. I’m afraid that due to the inclusion of a previous runaway on the crew, I have to account for the risk of his spirit... infecting the others on the crew."
  5095.  
  5096. > That heavy sense in your belly starts to turn downright icy.
  5097. "What are you asking for?"
  5098. > "When you get to the ship out there to pick up fuel and supplies, there will be a set of radio-frequency range control collars waiting there. Everyone wears them on job from now on. Gerard will be checking."
  5099. > You don't answer for several long moments.
  5100. > Not because good grace or decency were holding you back, or even an awareness that exploding on him wouldn't do any good.
  5101. > But mostly because you simply don't have the words to properly express your unrelenting fury at a betrayal of this magnitude.
  5102. > He planned this!
  5103. > Soarin had been here for weeks!
  5104. > If he'd wanted to drop it on you earlier there would have been push-back, but now that you're already here-
  5105. > While your anger had caught and thrown you for a loop, Anonymous was already yelling.
  5106. > Whitworth, the damn slimy eel, doesn't remotely phased; his voice doesn't rise from its typical, calm demeanor.
  5107. > "I don't think this was in any of the terms you specified in our agreement, Mr. Anonymous. Your property will be yours to do with as you see fit - once the job is done. Until then, I need to protect my investment too."
  5108. "Agreement or not, you knew damn well that this was going to be a thing. You could have worked with us, damn it!"
  5109. > "Recent developments in Equestria have forced me to reconsider that position. I need to know that they're going to have some consequences if they decide to run. Or fly."
  5110. > What recent developments?!
  5111. > "Oh, and the rest of them getting hit for it isn't consequences enough?"
  5112. > Anonymous sounds just as irate as you.
  5113. > Though you doubt he holds the same degree of bitterness.
  5114. > This wasn't any part of what you'd signed up for either!
  5115. "If all it takes is 'recent developments' for you to completely turn over out agreement, then how rutting solid was our agreement in the first place?"
  5116.  
  5117. > “Hey, is there even a ‘recent development’ in this? If it’s that big of a deal, why don’t you let us know so we can be ready? Or is this whole thing a load of bullshit drop on us at the last second?”
  5118. > "Anonymous, would you ever have agreed to this if I'd brought it up before?"
  5119. > Ah, so there it was.
  5120. > The admission - tacitly, if not explicitly - that Whitworth had held back on this until you had no choice.
  5121. > Damn him.
  5122. > All the way down to the darkest, slimiest corner of Tartarus.
  5123. > “We need them to be able to get out of the plane. Guide us in.”
  5124. > “The collars have plenty of range. As long as they don’t try leaving the group altogether, they should be fine.”
  5125. "What if someone says no? You're a long way away now. No police."
  5126. > "Well, you could run off. And the bat-pony, I guess. But the others.. they won't get far. And Anonymous, you'd be arrested trying to cross the portal back. Unless you want to go running too?"
  5127. > You let out a little wordless snarl, wings snapping open and your tuft fluffing up as your anger grows.
  5128. > Anonymous' hand is on your withers, but it doesn't matter.
  5129. > This - this blob of afterbirth in a suit decided to threaten you into this?!
  5130. > You - you just don't have the words.
  5131. > Dimly you are aware of Anonymous speaking, but his words barely register with you.
  5132. > "We'll... talk to the rest of the crew. Spitfire's already on a shock collar, so that won't be any change. But the others - I can't promise anything about what the others will do-"
  5133. > "You'll tell them, and I'll tell them if necessary. I’ll talk to you again when you reach the ship."
  5134. > Then Whitworth simply hangs up.
  5135. > Gerard's crew - Kalendae, Alicia, and Soarin - took most of this flight, leaving you free to on a cot and watch the land pass below through a window.
  5136. > It seemed better than to meditate on Whitworth’s demand, because every time you do think about it anger flares in you again.
  5137. > Oh, what you would do to him if you had the chance…
  5138.  
  5139. > Tearing your mind from those thoughts, you force your eyes out the window again.
  5140. > No obvious scars of sickness or warfare littered it, but it still seemed empty.
  5141. > Here and there a cloud-home passes; you can spot small clearings filled with what might have been villages.
  5142. > Maybe.
  5143. > Yet there's something... lifeless about it.
  5144. > Equestria might not be dead, but it had been hurt.
  5145. > Bad.
  5146. > Though the sun wasn't down yet, your internal clock says evening has come partway through the flight and long-honed sleeping skills put you to sleep.
  5147. > What feels like not a minute later, Anonymous is shaking you awake.
  5148. > "C'mon, Spits. We're going to touch down."
  5149.  
  5150. > The MS Scatturlas, a name which means nothing to you, does not in your opinion look much like a ship.
  5151. > More a chaotic jumble of metal frames and creaking gantries, looming up out of the water like some twisted island.
  5152. > Anonymous catches you look and nods.
  5153. > "...yeah. I think they're doing some ocean surveying on the side, but right now it's basically just our pit-stop for fuel."
  5154. > You're glad; sidling up the Mars (carefully) to let a boat carry a fuel line out is nerve-wracking enough.
  5155. > There's something deeply, overwhelmingly oppressive about it.
  5156. > Even when you file aboard it and into something approximating a decent office room - certainly no worse than the trailers they had used back on Earth! - it still feels oppressively tight to your pegasus senses.
  5157. > Or maybe that’s the looming sense of doom you feel over having to drop Whitworth’s demand on the rest of your team.
  5158. > That’s certainly something back on your mind; part of you wants to just call him up and have him do the duty of letting them know!
  5159. > But that would be running from you duty.
  5160. > You don’t run anymore.
  5161. > Not anymore.
  5162. > (Thanks, Barley Brew.)
  5163. > With everyone in place, you and Anonymous take your seats as well.
  5164. > He looks to you and coughs.
  5165. > Right.
  5166. “...so, right before we left something serious came up. Whitworth - the man who is running all of this - called, and-”
  5167. > Kalendae extends a wing, and you pause.
  5168. > “...we know, My Captain.”
  5169. “...we?”
  5170. > Your tentative question is answered with a nod - not just from her, but from all the others.
  5171. > “We heard what happened, My Captain. I at first, but then - all of us."
  5172. > Of course.
  5173. > Maybe it's a little tribalist of you, but always trust the Thestral to be hearing everything...
  5174. "...I didn't want to tell you earlier..."
  5175. > "S'alright, Captain. We get it."
  5176. > Soarin's casual tone lightens your heart, but that still leaves the issue at hoof.
  5177. "So. Um. Yeah."
  5178.  
  5179. > You look around the room, at all those expectant eyes facing back at you.
  5180. > Waiting for your answer again.
  5181. "I already told him I'd do it personally, since I already, y'know..."
  5182. > Head tilting back, you bare your throat to show the shock collar still fixed there.
  5183. "...but I didn't make any promises for all of you. These aren’t going to be a joke. They’re radio-ranged. If you stray out of that range, they’re not going to tickle. They’ll hurt. Your muscles will lock up and everything’ll go white."
  5184. > "Promises are not needed. Nor descriptions."
  5185. > Kalendae's lips draw back into a grin.
  5186. > "We have already decided as well."
  5187. > Wait.
  5188. > Ordinarily, you'd have been afraid of that kind of statement.
  5189. > But with that look on her face - do you dare to hope...?
  5190. > "We will take the collars."
  5191. > "All of us."
  5192. > Your jaw drops at Soarin's admission.
  5193. > Him alone - okay, you'd expected he would agree if you asked for it as a personal favor.
  5194. > But everypony?
  5195. "Cog?"
  5196. > "Me too."
  5197. > The stallion huffs gently, his tail flicking.
  5198. > "Soarin, Kalendae... they all managed to drag me away from th'drugs. Figure, I've gotta do them a solid back, y'know?"
  5199. "Bell Curve, Logic Gate?"
  5200. > "We're in."
  5201. > "Technically we're not part of your crew, but-"
  5202. > Bell Curve shrugs.
  5203. > "-I'm not planning to go anywhere, so why not?"
  5204. > You look to Gerard last.
  5205. > The griffon clicks his beak talons gripping the edge of the table.
  5206. > "It is the decision my superior has made. I will trust in his belief that he has reason to fear a sudden flight."
  5207. > Not until the meeting broke up did you notice that his talons had left deep divots on the tabletop.
  5208. > Right at the moment, you were too busy trying to hide the fact that your eyes were getting a bit shimmery.
  5209. > Superiors could show a little emotion in front of subordinates, yes; you didn't have to be a featureless rock!
  5210. "...I, uh... wow, I... was expecting to have to fight for this. Debate, argue, yell, all of it. The whole thing. But you guys..."
  5211.  
  5212. > Kalendae smiles.
  5213. > "My Captain, you do not need to argue. We -"
  5214. > She hesitates for the word, and Cog Whirl steps in.
  5215. > "We believe, Spitfire. That if y'ask us to do some bullshit, we'll give it a spin before goin' cold."
  5216. > Forget it.
  5217. > No way you're going to be able to hold back on showing a little mist in your eyes.
  5218. "You guys, really..."
  5219. > Hopping from the chair, you trot across the table to where the rest of them sit.
  5220. > Half-spreading your wings, you give a little nicker.
  5221. > They all take the hint and gather around you - extending wings and hooves to meet you.
  5222. > What did you ever do to deserve this?
  5223.  
  5224. --------
  5225.  
  5226. "Heading oh-thirty, oh-twenty-nine, twenty-eight... on it."
  5227. > "O-kay. We're aligned, altitude - check. Engineering, how's our electrical?"
  5228. > Alicia's voice filters through your headset:
  5229. > "Volts stable, amps nowhere near the red, I think we're ready to go."
  5230. "Copy. Thomas, fire that thing up."
  5231. > Somewhere behind you, Thomas would be crouched in the little locked-off compartment in the Mars' back - crouched with his co-workers over whatever machinery they'd parked in there.
  5232. > "Got it, cockpit. Unspooling antennas."
  5233. > There was a mild clunk; further back in the aircraft, twin electric motors would be turning drums to release two long, trailing antenna wires behind the aircraft.
  5234. > This was something you'd practiced before, back at Sproat Lake.
  5235. > What comes next was new.
  5236. > "Surveyor energizing. And... up."
  5237. > For just the briefest second the engines' pitch seems to change as more electricity is drawn from them.
  5238. > But when they return, there's...
  5239. > A tickling.
  5240. > That's the only way you can think to describe it.
  5241. > A tickling at the back of your head.
  5242. > Not a physical feeling but a sense of pressure or presence just behind you.
  5243. > You glance back at Gerard questioningly; he meets your eyes and gives a subtle nod.
  5244. > Not just you.
  5245. > That's going to be... annoying, but you'll probably learn to live with it.
  5246. > Probably.
  5247.  
  5248. > "Cockpit, we're getting good data back here. Keep it steady and moving; we appreciate it."
  5249. "Copy, Thomas. Straight and steady."
  5250. > Your eyes turn back to the instruments; slow and steady would be easy.
  5251. > Almost too easy.
  5252. “This is going to get boring real fast, isn’t it?”
  5253. > Anonymous snorts softly.
  5254. > “I’d let you lock in the autopilot, but I’m not sure how stable the weather is out here. Tell me, Spitfire, what do your pony-eyes see?"
  5255. "...what? What do my eyes have to do with it?"
  5256. > "Nevermind. Bad movie reference. You feeling any sense of rough weather?"
  5257. "Not in line now, and I don't think our path is taking us anywhere near any of the bigger formations that will."
  5258. > Anonymous thinks for a moment, then taps the wheel.
  5259. > "You haven't screwed me up yet, but I'm not ready to let my guard down. Even with the autopilot, don't let your attention drift too far."
  5260. "Got it."
  5261. > "I am capable of keeping watch too, you know."
  5262. > There's a note of testiness in Gerard's voice, and you're quick to jump on it:
  5263. "...good point, Gerard. You let me know if you catch anything too."
  5264. > The click of his beak - audible over the headset - tells you it's done with for the moment.
  5265. > By an hour later, you're quickly wondering:
  5266. > Considering how boring flying this monstrosity of a plane was for you, how bad was it for the men and ponies monitoring the equipment in the back?
  5267. > Three of them would be 'off-shift', catching sleep below; three more would be in the locked cabin, doing...
  5268. > What?
  5269. > Watching numbers scroll by on a screen?
  5270. > Waiting for sparks to fly off the machinery so they could fix it?
  5271. > A yawn forces it way past your lips.
  5272. > "You okay, Spits?"
  5273. > Damn, you hadn't thought you were that tired.
  5274. "Fine. It's just, uh - what do you call it? Jetlag? From transferring into Equestrian time."
  5275. > "It'll get better once we go through shifts, you get oriented and all that."
  5276. "I remember."
  5277.  
  5278. > By the time you go off-shift, though, you're just about ready to simply hit the sack and catch some shut-eye.
  5279. > That thought goes on hold when you pass Soarin coming forward on the lower deck, moving up to take his position as navigator.
  5280. > You stop him with a wing, though.
  5281. "Soarin... question for you."
  5282. > "What is it, Captain?"
  5283. > You're almost too tired to bother giving him a glare for that.
  5284. "Just..."
  5285. > You'd been going to ask him if it ever rubbed him wrong, what was being done here.
  5286. > Finding more resources for Equestria to strip.
  5287. > That was a stupid question, though; of course it must have!
  5288. > Soarin wasn't here because he believed in this; he was here to earn his freedom, and because you'd asked him to.
  5289. "...nevermind. I'm going to catch some rest."
  5290. > Suddenly you feel exhausted all over again.
  5291. "Hope you brought something to entertain yourself with, or it's going to be boring."
  5292. > "Renaud warned me. But hey, if he lets me I'll come down and chat with you a little?"
  5293. "While Anonymous is sleeping?"
  5294. > Back when you'd been claiming bunks, the others had allowed Anonymous and yourself to claim the two single-bunks in the cramped lower-deck nose cabin.
  5295. > Tight, but isolated.
  5296. > Maybe their way of recognizing that the two of you were still a team.
  5297. > Now, though...
  5298. "Just... be quiet when you do. He's not a real heavy sleeper."
  5299. > "Sure thing."
  5300. > Anonymous isn't asleep when get there, though.
  5301. > Instead he is stretching and groaning, working out muscles he hadn't put to use the last few hours.
  5302. > "Sorry, Spitfire. I don't know how many chances you'll have to do flights off the plane during this. Might have to get your exercise in when we're touching down in the lake."
  5303. "S'fine."
  5304. > You hop up on the bed and promptly fall over with a wide yawn.
  5305. "Think I'd rather take it a bit later anyway."
  5306. > Sleep comes faster than expected; but is troubled.
  5307. > You dream - strange dreams.
  5308.  
  5309. > Of darkness and solitude, of being alone in a dimly-lit, watery cavern by one moment and being surrounded by a swarm of fluttering wings as whispers fill the air the next.
  5310. > Of a single voice, singing lonesomely in a language you don’t quite understand.
  5311. > Maybe an hour or two later, you're woken by a muzzle pressing against your side.
  5312. " 'ey, Soarin..."
  5313. > Mumbling sleepily, you extend a wing for the stallion who scoots in underneath it.
  5314. > "You're really out of it, aren't you?"
  5315. > Laughing softly, you give a sleepy nod into your pillow.
  5316. "M'sorry. Might not talk 'til later."
  5317. > "That's fine. We'll be landing in a few hours anyway."
  5318. > Only later - when you're shaken away under a dim evening sky - do you comprehend the significance of that statement.
  5319. > So much for getting a full rest in.
  5320. > The lake's glassy surface splits as the Mars' hull slices, then plows through it - twin arcs of spray jetting up as the massive plane comes to a shuddering halt.
  5321. > You - aloft with Gerard - nod and nudge the radio's microphone closer to your mouth.
  5322. "That's good. Drop the anchor where you are; I'm not liking how shallow some of the rest of this lake looks."
  5323. > Besides, keeping the plane well away from shore would hopefully dissuade most things from attacking during the night.
  5324. > You touch down on the shore and watch as the others inflate a raft and start paddling their way to join you.
  5325. > Nobody feels like spending another moment in the cramped plane, and all but two of Thomas' team join in putting together a dinner on dry land as night falls.
  5326. > Kalendae settles beside you, a re-warmed meal clutched between her hooves.
  5327. > "Tis strange, to rest on this grass again... and to know tomorrow I will climb back in that thing and leave it again."
  5328. "That's how it works for us. Our duty. We put up with this so the rest of them can get back safe."
  5329. > "Yes, but so will all of them."
  5330. "Bell Curve, Logic, and Cog understand what it would mean if one of them ran. And Gerard-"
  5331.  
  5332. "-Gerard would fly into Tartarus itself if Whitworth asked him to, I think."
  5333. > "This I will agree on."
  5334. > Besides.
  5335. > A few of the crew here and there - Anonymous among them - sat with rifles slung over their shoulders.
  5336. > For timberwolves, changelings, manticores, or anything worse that crawled out of the shore.
  5337. > How many of them, you wonder, would pull the trigger if somepony fled?
  5338. > A question worth not lingering on for long.
  5339. > Instead you lay your head down on your hooves and stretch mightily, relishing the feel of cool grass beneath your belly.
  5340. > The sun was nearing the horizon now, turning the distant trees into a solid mass of silhouettes that crept up over hills.
  5341. > You breath deeply, old familiar smells filling your nostrils.
  5342. > A pang of nostalgia runs through you.
  5343. > Nothing on Earth smelled quite like this; even if it wasn’t a cloud-house, more than anything else it screams of 'home'.
  5344.  
  5345. > And yet...
  5346. > Your eyes turn to the opposite horizon, where the pale white disk of the moon was creeping upwards from its rest.
  5347. "Kalendae?"
  5348. > The Thestral mare tips a tufted ear at your soft tone.
  5349. > "My Captain?"
  5350. “Can I ask you something - kind of personal?”
  5351. > She rolls over to face your directly, caution written in her slitted eyes.
  5352. > "My ears are your ears."
  5353. "When this is done... what will you do?"
  5354. > "How do you mean?"
  5355. "Well... Princesses Cadance and Twilight are in the Crystal Empire in the north, right? But... that's not who you swore your oaths to when you joined the Night Guard. You're Luna's House Guard, right? Sworn to her, not to Equestria. So... what are you going to do?"
  5356. > Kalendae flares her nostrils, snorting softly.
  5357. > "Skotádi tou fengarioú! When you said you had a hard question, I did not think you meant hard and piercing as the sun's rays, My Captain."
  5358. "You don't have to answer. It's just... I'm not sure myself."
  5359. > "Then if I admit that I may not return to serve those Princesses in the north, who still uphold Equestria's crown and flag, would you think less of me?"
  5360. "Just a little while ago, I'd have torn you a new one. Now...?"
  5361. > You echo her snort.
  5362. "...now it's not so simple. I want to go back to the Princesses. But I don't know if I'm ready to leave all this either. And Soarin should have a say in the matter."
  5363. > "And I dare suggest you have not probed Anonymous' thoughts either?"
  5364. > Wincing as she hits right on exactly what you hadn't mentioned, you nod.
  5365. "I think I'm afraid of what they might say. Or that Anonymous wouldn’t be welcome under the Princesses. Or that I’d miss working with him if we split. There was something - comfortable about it just being us two against the world."
  5366. > "Aye, you open your heart to me. But then, neither have I given my answer to you."
  5367. > Raising an eyebrow, you look back over at her.
  5368. "So... can I ask, then?"
  5369.  
  5370. > "But a few weeks ago, I would have admitted in an instant: I must find My Princess. If Cadenza and Twilight Sparkle hold by next moon or fall by next moon, I wonder if it makes any difference. But if Luna could return..."
  5371. > She gives a small sigh of something almost like ecstatic pleasure.
  5372. > "...the tide could change, I swear it. Yet now, I wonder too. Cog Whirl is not yet ready for such a task; he is no guard. It would wear at him. And I admit, my - fondness for his heart makes me loath to break it. Is my duty not still to protect? Would Luna frown upon me if I abandoned her ponies to search for her? Ti aínigma! What a question this is."
  5373. "Caught between duty and love. You know, there are a fair few old Pegasus ballads written about that."
  5374. > Kalendae laughs, a rich and throaty sound.
  5375. > "Yes, I have heard. Never did I think to be subject of one."
  5376. "I don't think any of us wanted this... but I guess it's just good to know that I'm not the only one thinking about it."
  5377. > "As you settled my mind when we met by letting me know I was not alone, let me repay this favor."
  5378. > From nearer the rest of the group, Cog Whirl turns and gives Kalendae a low whinny; she echoes the noise with a stretch of her leathery wings.
  5379. “Go on. I think your coltfriend wants you.”
  5380. > Kalendae stands, tossing her mane back.
  5381. > “Hah! You tease, My Captain, but if this burden is mine to bear, then that is still no reason I should not raise the heart of another. Or raise other parts, hmm?”
  5382. > Her salacious tone reddens your cheeks; when you next look up, Kalendae is gone.
  5383. > Or rather, she is on the far side of the field - nestled up against Cog Whirl.
  5384. > That sight is enough to warm your heart too; Thank Celestia - or perhaps more relevantly, Luna - that Kalendae wasn’t letting herself fall so far into blame she would shut herself off.
  5385. > At least some ponies could recover - after what she’d been through, too!
  5386.  
  5387. > Somewhere up ahead, a rough game of some kind of ball had broken out - a tumbling, mixed group of pony and human alike romping through the grass.
  5388. > Burning off eager energy built from hours cooped up aboard the plane.
  5389. > You’re delighted to see Cog Whirl taking part alongside Soarin; just a few weeks earlier, that there wasn’t any way that stallion would have been doing anything but plotting his next high.
  5390. > With some coaxing, Kalendae is raised from her comfortable spot and joins in.
  5391. > On the sidelines, Gerard and Renaud keep watch; the latter with a gun laid across his lap, the former with his remaining good eye.
  5392. "Hey, you two!"
  5393. > You call out to them, gesturing with a wing to the players as Soarin fumbles the ball and drops it to Michelle.
  5394. "What's wrong, not going to join in?"
  5395. > "At our age?"
  5396. > Man and griffon look at each other and laugh, though you wonder how much of it is Gerard not wanting to be part of a pony-majority game.
  5397. > "What about you, Spitfire? You'd be good at this, no?"
  5398. "Are you kidding? I'd outspeed everyone. Besides, I got a little flying in earlier; I'm good."
  5399. > A few minutes later, Soarin stumbles out of the match and collapses beside you - sides heaving hard and sweat foaming on his coat.
  5400. "What, that's it? You're giving up? Thought there was more in you, Soarin."
  5401. > You tap his belly, earning a lazy swat from the stallion.
  5402. > "Shaddup."
  5403. "C'mon, all that running and you're still not in shape? You really got to lay off the snacking."
  5404. > "Oh, come on-"
  5405. > Laughing, you roll over onto your back and spread your wings.
  5406. > The moon is rising in full now, occluding those stars that surround it.
  5407. > Familiar constellations in a familiar sky.
  5408. "...Celestia above, I'm glad to be back."
  5409. > "I'm not yet."
  5410. "Why not?"
  5411. > “We’re not free yet. It’s tempting. Damn tempting - but I couldn’t leave you behind.”
  5412. “Besides. The collar would get you.”
  5413. > “Seriously, Spitfire? I’m a pegasus. I can take a little lightning.”
  5414.  
  5415. “These things aren’t like the bolts we toss at each other for fun. They hurt. Pulse. Lock up all your muscles. Trust me on this one - not even an Earth Pony could get through this one!”
  5416. > “Not even an Earth Pony? Huh. That’s rough. Okay, I won't play any games. Besides, I couldn't bear seeing your face all sad."
  5417. > You laugh and buffet him with a wing.
  5418. "You better not make me sad, goof-off. Or I'll get angry pretty soon after that."
  5419. > Your eyes fall back to Cog Whirl again, who had now laid his head down on his hooves; Kalendae's was in turn stretched out over him.
  5420. "...hey Soarin? What'd you say to Cog exactly? To get him going again?"
  5421. > "I dunno. Just... stuff I guess."
  5422. "Stuff."
  5423. > The stallion shrugs his wings, looking over at you.
  5424. > "I talked to him about how I got through all those months. Out in the forest, and all that. Thinking about how if I could just make it to tomorrow, then I could get to the next day too..."
  5425. > Another snort as you put your wing over him.
  5426. > "Yeah, yeah. I know. Enough cheese to make pasta for the entire team with."
  5427. "Yeah. But that's just like you."
  5428.  
  5429. --------
  5430.  
  5431. > Mark your heading.
  5432. > Fly straight and level.
  5433. > Turn.
  5434. > Mark new heading.
  5435. > Fly straight and level.
  5436. > Turn.
  5437. > Mark new heading.
  5438. > Resist the urge to bang your head on the flight console because this might just be the most hideously boring job you've ever experienced.
  5439. > "Spitfire, give me a hand here. Ten letters down, second letter is S and eighth is E. 'A long, steep cliff between two terrains with differing elevation'."
  5440. > Roll your eyes, because Anonymous is terrible at crossword puzzles.
  5441. "Are you kidding me? I don't know anything about rocks. Go find an Earth Pony. Other than Bell Curve. He's not into rock."
  5442. > "Escarpment."
  5443. > Gerard's dry tone fills your headset.
  5444. > "My old Aerie was built on one, near the edge of the pass. I did not know the word for it then, though."
  5445. "Well, there you go. He knows, I guess."
  5446. > Anonymous scratches in the word with his pencil.
  5447.  
  5448. > "Cool. Thanks, Gerard. Uh, seven across, ancient site of a battle between-"
  5449. > You groan to drown out the rest of the question.
  5450. > Was there any of these he wasn't going to ask about?
  5451. > Seriously.
  5452. > You'd been at this how many days now?
  5453. > And he still wasn't getting any better.
  5454. > Before you could comment on it, Kalendae sticks her head up into the cockpit.
  5455. > "There is lunch, if anyone wants it."
  5456. "Lunch sounds fantastic. What do we have? Are there any of those tuna sandwiches left?"
  5457. > "Yes, but if you eat all of those-"
  5458. > "We've got a signal!"
  5459. > Thomas' voice is rich with excitement, and the transformation in the cockpit is immediate.
  5460. > Anonymous' crossword puzzle is flung aside as he sits up; all thoughts of food flee your mind.
  5461. > You weren't sure why, but something about that tone...
  5462. > "Spitfire, you have the wheel. Thomas, what's up?"
  5463. > "We've got a good signal. Strong return, definite match. If you can, go to maintain zero-one-one and hold your altitude."
  5464. "Copy. Anonymous?"
  5465. > His answer is to throw the plane into a shallow turn, bringing it to the requested course.
  5466. "Okay. Gerard, is there anything in our way? Any reason we can't hold this?"
  5467. > "Mountains in fifty kilometers, but they're only up to eleven hundred meters."
  5468. > The foothills of the Smokey Mountains.
  5469. "Those won't even come close. And this far to the west, there's not going to be much wind interference. We can hold it."
  5470. > "I got it."
  5471. > Anonymous nods, tapping his microphone on.
  5472. > "Thomas, we can hold the course."
  5473. > "Okay, okay - yeah, Michelle, get that sequence up and transmitting - good. Hold that course as long as you can."
  5474. > Chatter from the others working in that compartment is bleeding into your headset.
  5475. > Something about angles and range to return.
  5476. > Probably plotting whatever it is that's in the earth they were looking for.
  5477. > "...best return is down seventy-two vertical, angle fourteen right, and-"
  5478. > You wince; hard.
  5479.  
  5480. > The tickling sense at the back of your head - long ignored, grown to be a regular part of existence here - had returned, redoubled.
  5481. > There was a pressure in your skull now, almost the sense of pressure that swept in before a storm.
  5482. > But - alive somehow.
  5483. > This was different.
  5484. > Nothing during training had caused anything like this, and you had made trial runs!
  5485. "Anonymous, something - something's wrong."
  5486. > "What, with the plane? I don't-"
  5487. > Before he can question further, Alicia speaks up:
  5488. > "Thomas! I don't know what you're doing back there, but it's sucking a whole lot of power from the engines! Volts are stable, but my current's dropping hard. You need to get the auxiliaries up."
  5489. > "Auxiliaries, um - Fred, go get the auxiliary power units started! Yes, now, we're getting fantastic data!"
  5490. > Simultaneous with this, there is a scrambling of hooves on metal as Cog Whirl comes up into the cockpit.
  5491. > "What in all Harmony are they doing back there?! Can't they hear the engines straining out?"
  5492. "We know, Cog, we know! Working on it! Alicia, am I going to lose engine power?"
  5493. > "RPMs aren't dropping too far, but he's putting a huge load on the alternators and I'm worried about cabin power."
  5494. > Even as she speaks, you can feel it too:
  5495. > The off-pitch rising groan of engines straining to develop power for the plane.
  5496. > More importantly, you well-honed flight senses telling you it is already beginning to lose airspeed and subtly slide into a nose-down pitch.
  5497. > Thomas is still speaking into the intercom, near-babbling with excitement over the discovery.
  5498. > "Yes, that's it - keep on it, keep on it -"
  5499. > "Thomas!"
  5500. > Alicia is near yelling into the headset.
  5501. > "I'm cutting you out. Turn it off!"
  5502. > "Okay, okay, - uh, fifty-five down vertical, ten right, no deflection-"
  5503.  
  5504. > There's a click somewhere - a switch thrown by Alicia maybe - and the plane shudders as a load is taken off of it.
  5505. > The slide ends, leaving you straight and steady.
  5506. > Within a few minutes the rest of the crew have the auxiliary power units up and running, but no matter how many passes you make the excitement never returns to Thomas' voice.
  5507. > What was he hunting, you wonder?
  5508. > Something that only flared up for a few minutes at a time, then vanished?
  5509. > You didn't know anything that did that; then again, you weren't exactly a specialist in magical minerals.
  5510.  
  5511. > That night, following touching down on the edge of a large lake, you pull Kalendae, Cog, and Soarin aside while the others are busy.
  5512. "I just don't get it. What appears and disappears like that? In just a matter of minutes?"
  5513. > Soarin cocks his head.
  5514. > "Are they portal-hunting maybe? Be faster at it, get there sooner than anyone else?"
  5515. "I... don't think so. Anonymous and I once visited a portal-research station, and nothing like what they had gave me a feeling like that. You all felt it, right?"
  5516. > Everypony nods.
  5517. > Thank Celestia you weren't the only one.
  5518. > Kalendae shifts uneasily though, as if afraid or nervous of bringing up what she asks:
  5519. > "My Captain - what about one of Their Highnesses? Could they seek a Princess as a prize?"
  5520. "...if they're trying to chase a Princess with a single plane half-full of ponies, then they're even crazier than I think. Besides, a Princess would just have teleported away."
  5521. > She thinks a moment, hooked wing-claws twitching, and nods - her fears apparently satisfied.
  5522. > "So, it must be magic of a kind then."
  5523. "I'd assume so, yes."
  5524. > "No kind of magic - pegasus, unicorn, earth pony, nothing - I've ever felt did... that to my head, though."
  5525. > You nod in agreement with Cog.
  5526. "I know. I'd love to ask Bell Curve or Logic Gate, but... I hate to say it, but they might not be on our side. They agreed to be on this without being promised anything, and I don't know what they're getting out of it."
  5527.  
  5528. --------
  5529.  
  5530. > Whatever signal Thomas had hoped to find is gone by the next day.
  5531. > Instead you turn back to the shoreline, heading to pick up a tank-full of fuel from the Scatturlas, and then back to flying search patterns again.
  5532. > Hours slip by hurtling through the air; ordinarily there would be plenty of paperwork to do while Anonymous had the wheel, but in this case...
  5533. > Boredom is a terrible disease.
  5534.  
  5535. > A (very rough) volleyball net is set up on the lower deck between the sleeping sections; it lasts just long enough for Kalendae to sleepily decry the clatter of hooves on metal decking.
  5536. > You try sketching, and discover that you were still no good at much more than doodles.
  5537. > That hadn't changed, at least.
  5538. > Mostly, you sleep.
  5539. > Even that must be poor rest, though, as you feel that you're perpetually yawning, and-
  5540. > "Woah."
  5541. > Anonymous' comment draws your attention; you look up from the laptop on your bed to see him with his face glued to a porthole window.
  5542. "What is it?"
  5543. > "Cloud city, I think."
  5544. > Your blood pressure promptly spikes; Renaud had taken you past a cloud city?!
  5545. > That hadn't been on the maps!
  5546. > The second you get to the window - Anonymous quickly pulling back - and look at it, though, you understand.
  5547. > Not inhabited.
  5548. "It's not even a real cloud city."
  5549. > Squinting, you try to peer closer in at the formations.
  5550. > It looked like four or five smaller cloud-structures had collided, or maybe been caught by a rogue cloud coming in off the ocean that had stuck them together like taffy.
  5551. > Buildings twisted and turned at bizarre angles, like some dreamworld creation.
  5552. > They seemed to half-melt, half-crumble where they touched - walls tearing open in great yawning gashes, columns and roofs buckling.where the magic that had once formed them was failing.
  5553. > Here and there you could see the dark touches of heavy moisture lurking within, a prime sign of cloudstuff left unattended for too long.
  5554. > Even a single pegasus spending just a few minutes a day could keep them in shape.
  5555. "...more like the debris of one. Might have gotten torn off a larger city by a storm, or might have been somepony's single home. It's probably been drifting for a long time. Who knows where it came from originally?"
  5556. > Ah, if only you could jump out there and fly now!
  5557. > Get out of this airborne cage, stretch your wings a bit, do a little investigating.
  5558.  
  5559. > The second that thought clears your head, your thoughts dampen.
  5560. > On second thought, maybe not.
  5561. > That would mean exposing yourself to whatever had happened to that place in its final moments.
  5562. > Romping around in the ruins of somepony else's life seemed...
  5563. > Wrong.
  5564. > Like digging up a grave to poke around in it.
  5565. > "Hey Spits, you alright?"
  5566. "Yeah, just - woah, hey!"
  5567. > "C'mere, Prettybird."
  5568. > Anonymous had picked you up with his hands around your barrel, lifting you back from the porthole window and more properly onto his bed.
  5569. "Put me down! Someone might come in and see!"
  5570. > You squirm a little bit, but your heart isn't really in it.
  5571. > Besides, he's settled you on the soft bedding again and - oooh.
  5572. > Yeah, he's going for the 'scritch spot'.
  5573. > Damn him for discovering that!
  5574. > There's no escape as you slump down on the bed, but at least you can keep yourself from kicking a leg as his fingernails get that point right between your wings.
  5575. > "Hatch's closed, Spitfire. And in any case, I can tell something's on your mind."
  5576. "I... part of it's just being sick of getting stuck in here forever and ever."
  5577. > "Yeah, I don't blame you on that. But...
  5578. > Huh.
  5579. > If the hatch was closed...
  5580. "...it's whatever that signal was the other day. When we were tracking it-"
  5581. > "Yeah, it was the strangest thing. Going by the angles Thomas read off, it was getting further away from us!"
  5582. "Right?!"
  5583. > You jerk upright, scritchy fingers be damned.
  5584. "That's what I was going to say. I can't figure it out; Soarin, Cog, Kalendae and I talked it over. What could he be doing?"
  5585. > “What, and I wasn’t good enough to tell too?”
  5586. > Your heart sinks.
  5587. "Anonymous, I didn't mean it like that-"
  5588. > Instantly you bite your tongue and curse yourself for uttering what may be the single most cliche and unhelpful response in history.
  5589. > Why say that, of all things?!
  5590. > But he only lifts a hand to slip beneath your pinned-back ears and start scratching there.
  5591.  
  5592. > "I know you didn't, Spitfire. You have been a little - distant, though, ever since we got on."
  5593. "...yeah."
  5594. > You sigh, leaning in to his touch.
  5595. > Relishing in it even as you know you'll have to give an answer to his comment.
  5596. "I... I think there's a part of me that still wants to go back to how it used to be. When I was running the Wonderbolts. When I-"
  5597. > It hurts to admit.
  5598. "-only had to deal with ponies, except for the odd delegate in Canterlot or foreign liaison. When it was... simple."
  5599. > "So you go to them first."
  5600. > Nodding, you shift your wings up to huddle defensively beneath them.
  5601. "Yeah. So I go to the other ponies first, because... because one some level I'm still thinking of them as 'my ponies'."
  5602. > "Kind of noticed."
  5603. > Is that jealousy in his voice?
  5604. > Your ears prick up as if they could discern some hint that would make you certain.
  5605. "It's... hard. To let go of those instincts, and then let go of the feelings that say 'they're just slavers' on top of that."
  5606. > "Hey, hey-"
  5607. > Anonymous' hand is beneath your chin, lifting your head up.
  5608. > "I'm not blaming you, okay? I get it. Just... don't cut me out of the loop, okay?"
  5609. > You nod.
  5610. > But just nodding isn't enough.
  5611. > You wouldn't have tolerated it as 'enough'.
  5612. "...I had a talk with Kalendae a couple nights ago. About what we're going to do when this is all over."
  5613. > "Oh yeah?"
  5614. "Yeah. We're... we're not sure. Either of us."
  5615. > "What, you don't want to go free?"
  5616. "I mean, of course I fucking want to be free. But I'm not sure I want to be-"
  5617. > Away from him.
  5618. > Celestia above, why are you reduced to being a stuttering schoolfilly when it comes to this?
  5619. > Fortunately Anonymous is already there, stroking back your mane and stepping in to fill in for what you can't say.
  5620. > "Yeah, I'd really miss you too, Prettybird."
  5621. > You swallow hard.
  5622. "Yeah."
  5623. > "In the meantime... what do we do about our immediate problem?"
  5624. > Now it's Anonymous who sounds distant and nervous.
  5625.  
  5626. > You lean over to rest your head against him, and to your delight those fingers resume working up and down your spine again.
  5627. "On that? We keep a really, really close eye when it happens again, and see what we can figure out."
  5628. > "Keep a close watch. You got it, cap'n."
  5629. > Even flicking him with a wing for that seems like too much effort.
  5630. "You got it. Close watch. For now-"
  5631. > You yawn, hard.
  5632. "-now, just keep doin' that please..."
  5633. > In the end, though, it turns out to be little more than a few hours before you get your chance.
  5634.  
  5635. --------
  5636.  
  5637. > This time, the second Thomas calls out that they've found the signal, you're on it:
  5638. "Get those APUs up and running, or we're going to have to shut down again."
  5639. > "Already on it!"
  5640. > Thomas' team must have stationed someone in the back compartment where the small engine-generators were; soon you hear the distant clatter, cough, and groan of the engines coming to life.
  5641. "Alicia? Are we stable?"
  5642. > "Relatively... Gerard, watch those ammeters. I'm keeping an eye on this side-"
  5643. > You tune her out and look to Anonymous.
  5644. > He gives you a subtle nod.
  5645. > By common agreement, that meant you alone had the plane's wheel:
  5646. > Leveraging your pegasus instincts to keep it flying as Thomas barked navigation commands in your ear.
  5647. > And Anonymous?
  5648. > He was listening to those orders too.
  5649. > But he was scratching them down on a sheet of paper; trying to plot out where the... whatever it was, was going.
  5650. > A job you doubted you could trust anyone else with.
  5651. > Kalendae was co-piloting for Renaud, and while she was of course solid, you still weren't sure what approaching him would result in.
  5652. > Damn, why does this feel like organizing a rebellion or something?
  5653. > "Spitfire, did you hear me?"
  5654. "Sorry, say again?"
  5655. > "Descend to four-thousand and keep it steady there. We're on a good track so far..."
  5656. > Four thousand - not too far down.
  5657. > You resist the urge to look to Anonymous and make sure he was getting it.
  5658.  
  5659. > All the information in Equestria wouldn't be worth anything if the plane crashed!
  5660. > With no answers any closer, you turn back for the Scatturlas and another fuel load.
  5661. > Then a course is set north, scooting along the coast.
  5662. > Thomas evidently didn't feel what whatever he'd found so far was 'good enough'.
  5663. > Fine enough with you; once your shift was done, you turned the shift over to the second crew and went down to the lower deck.
  5664. > Rising from the copilot’s seat after so long made your vision swim; damn, you must really not be sleeping well!
  5665. > Kalendae and Cog Whirl are waiting at the bottom of the stairs - or more accurately, they're too busy trading little kisses to notice your arrival.
  5666. > You snap a wing across Kalendae's croup and shoot her a wink.
  5667. > "C'mon, colts and fillies. You can have your fun when people aren't waiting for you."
  5668. > Both look suitably ashamed as you turn back towards the bed.
  5669. > As you go, though, you catch Gerard's eye as the griffon comes down the ladder after them.
  5670. > You know...
  5671. > You hadn't considered Gerard an ally in this.
  5672. > But hadn't he stood up for you when you wanted to get Cog Whirl on the team?
  5673. > He'd said he was impressed by your leadership.
  5674. > Well, time to impress him again.
  5675. "Gerard, hold up a minute?"
  5676. > He does as you wander over, tilting his head in a decidedly somewhat avian gesture.
  5677. > You drop your voice to the lowest you could and still be heard over the omnipresent rumble of engines.
  5678. "Gerard... there's something odd about the scanning that they're doing. I don't think I need to point out to you that whatever they're targeting doesn't stay still. If there's anything you know..."
  5679. > He clicks his beak.
  5680. > "No, Spitfire. Your instincts are not wrong, I think, and it is not but I will not be breaking oaths when nothing is wrong yet."
  5681. > That damn rooster.
  5682. > He knew.
  5683. > Something about this, he knew - maybe something Whitworth had warned him about!
  5684. > Settling on the bed, stretches out catlike and flexes his talons.
  5685.  
  5686. > "I admit, the - tickling in the back of my head I did not expect. Like an errant feather that no amount of preening will remove. But I can muster the will to not let it bother me!"
  5687. "I'm serious, Gerard. I don't get the feeling this is just some magic rocks they're hunting-"
  5688. > "Should something go wrong, I will be the first to tell all. This I swear to you, Spitfire. I will not let the others die for the sake of my silence."
  5689. "Whitworth told you everything, didn't he?"
  5690. > One remaining eye closing, Gerard bobs his head in an affirmative.
  5691. > "And made me swear oaths not to speak unless my life was in danger. You understand an oath must be kept, yes? You no doubt took some too, when you first entered the ranks."
  5692. "I... yes."
  5693. > "Then you understand."
  5694. > Damn him.
  5695. > But what can you do?
  5696. > Threaten?
  5697. > Whitworth had effectively given him absolute protection.
  5698. "Gerard... I understand. But I'm still not happy. We have to trust each other up here, and what you've just told me isn't encouraging me to trust."
  5699. > "I realize this, Captain."
  5700. > Since when did he call you captain?
  5701. > "But let me ask you this: Do you not hide the truth of what you do every day, for the sake of Anonymous? Do you think the people would work with you would be upset if they knew? If your passengers knew?"
  5702. > Your first intuition is to point out that you are not imperiling their lives.
  5703. > The second is that you knew just how Gerard would answer that:
  5704. > Neither was he, as far as he knew.
  5705. > And you couldn't deny his point either.
  5706. > Gerard sees this, and gives another little nod.
  5707. "Just... promise me one thing. Promise me we're not hunting ponies down there. Not any pony."
  5708. > "We are not hunting ponies. This, I can tell you with all honesty."
  5709. > You let out a sigh.
  5710. "That much... thank you. I'll take that."
  5711.  
  5712. > With no further responses from whatever they're searching for, you turn north again.
  5713. > By Gerard's estimation, there was still plenty of fuel left for more loitering before you'd have to turn back.
  5714. > So when you're shaken awake by Anonymous less than two hours after turning things over to Renaud's crew, it's more than a little concerning to you when he explains why:
  5715. > "Get up to the cockpit. Cog Whirl just came down, apparently something is really wrong."
  5716. > Tumbling from the bed, you stretch - legs, backs, wings spreading and thank Celestia for a plane big enough to do that in - and head for the stairs up to the cockpit deck.
  5717. > The first two attempts lead to you unceremoniously bumping your snout into the next step - a consequence of waking up so quickly.
  5718. > Which was odd, because you don't ever remember that being like that before.
  5719. > Either you were getting a lot older fast, or this experience was ruining your sleep worse than you thought.
  5720. > If it went on much longer, you'd have to talk to Anonymous about it...
  5721. > Shaking that off, you climb the rest of the stairs up and find Soarin hunched over the map table, alternating between speaking into the radio and using a mouth-held stylus to scribble on a tablet.
  5722. > Kalendae is focused on the controls, while Renaud seemed to be caught up in the same conversation Soarin was.
  5723. > You sidle over to the table and look down at what he's plotting out.
  5724. > Something about the ocean, a path running eastward towards the heartlands, and-
  5725. "Oh, rutting black balls..."
  5726. > You wait a moment longer for Soarin to pull the headset off before looking at him.
  5727. "So. Feral storm?"
  5728. > He nods glumly.
  5729. > "And a big one. Scatturlas' Radar picked it up coming out of the South Luna Sea, pushing some nasty winds and big ugly clouds."
  5730.  
  5731. > Another acid swear flies from your lips; just a few years ago, there would have been dedicated teams of storm-wranglers along the coast to assemble protective lines of clouds - bulwarks that would send the feral storm bouncing along the coast but never making landfall until it had spent itself.
  5732. > A task the Wonderbolts had assisted with more than once, and even with the local backup found alarmingly tricky.
  5733. > That the local teams often had to pull it off alone earned your deep respect.
  5734. > Here, now, with just one Wonderbolt, a Thestral, and a griffon...?
  5735. "Okay, we're not fighting it."
  5736. > You look around again, and find most of the eyes in the cockpit - barring those at the pilot and copilot's station, but including the rest of the crew and Thomas who had arrived while your back was turned.
  5737. "We don't try to fight it. Or fly into it. This is too big to try that for."
  5738. > "So, what - just go around it?"
  5739. > "Or try and make our way back to the Scatturlas before it reaches us. Tie up there and ride it out aboard."
  5740. > Thomas traces a line on the map with a finger, but Kalendae shakes her head furiously.
  5741. > "A foal's choice, like running home to dam and sire! Tied up near all that metal and steel when the winds and waves come? Our tail and wings would catch them like sails and be torn apart."
  5742. > She spreads her wings as if to demonstrate with their leathery webbing, and Renaud nods.
  5743. > "She's right. I think one of the other Mars hulls actually sank in a bad storm."
  5744. "So... we find a good, sheltered port and or cove, and we drop anchor there and just wait it out."
  5745. > "Sounds good to me."
  5746. > Soarin taps the stylus on the tablet’s screen again.
  5747. > "I can find us a decent place. But we should head their now - don't want to risk playing around with fuel limits if we're going to be sitting around running the auxiliaries to keep our power up."
  5748. "I'll agree on that. Renaud, turn us back towards the coast. Heading 0-6-0."
  5749.  
  5750. > You look about, cheeks coloring as you realize no one had asked you to give orders.
  5751. > Thomas' eyes fall, but he doesn't argue.
  5752. > "Yeah. Let's go. There goes our schedule, I guess."
  5753. "If this was Earth, all your satellites and predictions and whatever would have told us days ago. If Equestria was still how it was, that feral storm would be turned back at the coast."
  5754. > You shrug with your wings, rustling them as you set them back down.
  5755. "Just a bad middle ground, not having either."
  5756. > Don't have to say, that if they hadn't dragged ponies out of Equestria by the dozen there might still be some pegasi around to fight the feral storm.
  5757. > Even after everything else.
  5758. > Nobody speaks, though a few do reach up for accessible hand- or hoof-grips as the plane rolls into its turn.
  5759. > If not for the fact that the skies outside were still clear and blue, you'd say that it felt like the storm had already settled over the cockpit...
  5760. > Anonymous is the first to break the silence:
  5761. > "Well, it's official. Storms have it in for me whenever I come here."
  5762. > "Wait, this isn't the first time?"
  5763. "We kind of jumped straight into a storm the first time. When we went through the portal by accident? That was an ugly snow-howler, up north of Trottingham."
  5764. > Gerard hisses softly.
  5765. > "I know those storms."
  5766. "Yeah. We just kind of bunkered down too until it passed, though in that case it was more of a 'you're going to be on the ground one way or another, so it'd better be by choice' thing."
  5767. > From the pilot's seat, Renaud chuckles nervously.
  5768. > "Let's try not to let it get to that point, huh?"
  5769. > "Yeah."
  5770. > Thomas nods, starting down the stairs.
  5771. > "I'll go tell Michelle, Sai, and all the rest."
  5772. > But by a couple of hours later, a sudden descent is looking worryingly more likely.
  5773. > Though you couldn't yet sense the storm's approach, at this altitude ominous clouds piling on the horizon were all but unmissable.
  5774.  
  5775. > A nervous energy filled the plane; though the cockpit hard partially emptied out, everyone was wandering about with the touchy attitudes of those trapped on a narrow metal cylinder rapidly hurtling towards a worrisome storm.
  5776. "Gerard, Soarin, are you two sure we're going to be at a safe distance here?"
  5777. > "From what the Scatturlas has been transmitting about the storm's track, I think so. We'll still get hit, but it'll be just the edge. Most of the worst will miss us. But..."
  5778. "I don't like hearing 'but's, Soarin..."
  5779. > Gerard finishes some calculation and tosses down his stylus angrily.
  5780. > "But, I do not believe we can safely reach the cove we were originally aiming for."
  5781. "Damn. Do we have a backup option?"
  5782. > "Yes. If we turn north again now, we should have fuel to reach another good cove."
  5783. > "We're not going there, Gerard. It just... don't feel right."
  5784. "What is it, Soarin?"
  5785. > He takes his stylus in his teeth and points on the map.
  5786. > "It's Marechester Bay."
  5787. "...oh."
  5788. > Anonymous looks at you with a questioning eye.
  5789. > "What's wrong with Marechester Bay?"
  5790. "There was a city there. Decent sized, a trade port of moderate size. Fish, oldwood from some of the forests I think, plus it was a place for ships going further up or down the coast to restock."
  5791. > "Is there a city still there?"
  5792. > You shake your head at Thomas, but it is Soarin who answers:
  5793. > "Hard to say. When everything fell apart, some towns went to nothing. Others - it's been a while, but there are still a few ponies hanging on. Outside the Special Governance Zone, that's rare; everypony there was... taken away."
  5794. > A quiet chill runs through the cockpit.
  5795. "...look, the point is the founders of Marechester weren't stupid. It's on the sheltered, windward side of the bay. We want that shelter, we need to tie up close as well."
  5796. > "Is there another spot, another good bay we can find?"
  5797. > "Not without stretching our fuel reserves."
  5798. > Gerard traces a claw up the map.
  5799.  
  5800. > "This plane is large, and we cannot land in just any pond."
  5801. "Anonymous, Renaud - what do you say we do a shallow pass over. Kalendae and I will take a flight out. If there's a hostile welcome, we move on."
  5802. > "That sounds reasonable."
  5803. "Then set our collars to give us the range we need, and we'll go."
  5804. > Kalendae is all too happy to crawl from the pilot's seat.
  5805. > The two of you head down to the lower deck, to one of the aft doors - well below the wings and their dangerously whirling propellers, using one of the lower flank hatches since the plane was not touching down in water.
  5806. "...you ready for this, Kalendae?"
  5807. > "It feels strange, to be sure. Scouting to make sure there are none of our own kin awaiting us."
  5808. "What, you never had to check on criminals in the Night Guard?"
  5809. > "Criminals, yes. Cities, no."
  5810. > And then Anonymous and Alicia turn the hatch's latchwheel between them, hinges squealing as the metal swings in to reveal the land beneath.
  5811. > The coast passed well below - bands of tree-laden land, spearing into foamy grey water.
  5812. > The storm was still a ways off, but the water seemed to have already inherited its violence:
  5813. > Even from this altitude you could see the breakers slapping into the shore.
  5814. > A shudder runs along your spine; Celestia help anyone who fell and got caught in those tides...
  5815. "Okay, Kalendae. I'll lead, you follow. Got it?"
  5816. > "I hear, My Captain."
  5817. > Heavy goggles slip down from your forehead over your eyes.
  5818. "Three. Two. One-"
  5819. > You immediately miss the Catalina's tail hatch.
  5820. > Or even the nose hatch - those let you leap out facing away or straight into the wind.
  5821. > Here, the second you pass through the hatch you are slammed by the hammer-blow of wind.
  5822. > The rest of the plane whips by in an instant, engines dropping into a doppler-shifted roar that soon leaves you behind.
  5823. > A quick glance confirms that Kalendae was on your wing and riding easily.
  5824.  
  5825. > You swing north and take off a good clip; it'd be a good ten minutes of flight to bring you into range of Marechester.
  5826. > That far out wouldn't make the plane's noise entirely, but it'd give you plenty of early warning if any curious pegasi rose up to meet it.
  5827. > A crest of rolling hills - their sides bare stone, but the tops well-padded with trees, like the mane of some gigantic pony - guards the southern flank of the bay.
  5828. > You bleed altitude crossing that barrier, sinking down until you're barely brushing treetops with your belly.
  5829. > What emerges past it makes your heart sink.
  5830. > Marechester has suffered.
  5831. > Brightly colored buildings have faded into dull and muted tones by months or years of wind and salt-water spray; the blocks are pock-marked with gaping, maw-like holes in roofs and walls where wood has rotted or thatch and tile have been done in by sharp gusts.
  5832. > A few buildings are entirely gone, reduced to charred husks by fire - a spilled lantern? Lightning? Smoldering embers of some trespassers’ fire? - reaching upward with grasping, skeleton-like blackened beams.
  5833. > Out in the bay sat the ruined hulks of a hooffull of boats, sunk in the water and torn open from so long without any attention from their owners.
  5834. > So, too, are the streets empty.
  5835. > No pastel shapes moving among the streets or flitter along rooftops.
  5836. > Falling back, you whisper to Kalendae:
  5837. "Stay close on my wing. We don't get separated. You see something, call it out to me before checking. There might still be somepony living here."
  5838. > Somepony living there, or something worse than a last few hangers-on.
  5839. > Rather than answer, she just gives a curt nod - her long strands of mane flowing freely in the wind.
  5840. > Marechester's namesake bay was cut from the ocean by a long, running peninsula and islands spearing northward from the southern coast; the city itself was built near the peninsula's base, nestled into the shore's curve as it turned inland.
  5841.  
  5842. > So there sheltered from southerly winds by the hills and the north by the peninsula's reach, it was ideally protected and had grown along the shore like a curving slice of fruit.
  5843. > But if anypony else was still here, they were making themselves hard to spot:
  5844. > You touch down in an open square not far from the docks, lined with the half-collapsed remnants of shopping stalls.
  5845. > Hoofsteps echo on empty, cracked cobble that weeds are steadily transforming into a spiderweb of greenery.
  5846. > Ears swivel at every distant creak and whistle, but it is your nose that is doing the real work:
  5847. > Hunting for something that would suggest a recent sign of pony habitation.
  5848. > Smoke from a fire, faded food from the previous night's dinner, sweat, or even nightsoil.
  5849. > Nothing but the smell of the sea and aged stone.
  5850. > Maybe a hint of mildew.
  5851. "Anything, Kalendae?"
  5852. > "I hear nothing yet, My Captain. Nor smell it."
  5853. > Her tufted ears were twitching around as well, slitted eyes sweeping over the territory.
  5854. "Okay. Just above the rooftops now; if somepony's living, they've got to be farming. Forage won't keep more than a few ponies long."
  5855. > Further on, a single great tower dominates the skyline; you set a course for that.
  5856. > Touching down draws an angry chirping from birds nesting around the bells - pitted, tarnished, but somehow miraculously still in place - and you murmur a quiet apology as you pause on its edge.
  5857. > The same hills which shielded Marechester gave it a pronounced slope; from this bottom point, you could see most of the city clearly laid out.
  5858. > Apart from a few scattered overgrown gardens and a place where ivy seemed to have broken free from a planter to run rampant across several buildings, though.
  5859. > "Spitfire?"
  5860. > The radio crackles in your ear.
  5861. > "Everything okay down there? Not to rush you, but we're burning gas up here..."
  5862. "Looks quiet from my end. Kalendae? Do you-"
  5863. > "Movement! My Captain, listen!"
  5864. > You do, though it takes a few moments longer.
  5865.  
  5866. > Something was moving down there... but what?
  5867. "Okay, just a second guys. You can hear this better than me, Kalendae. Take us in; I'm on your wing."
  5868. > Leathered wings snap open and she leaps from the belltower, gliding down among the rooftops.
  5869. > Circling a block once, Kalendae touches down on a rooftop and calls in - but just as quickly, leaps free!
  5870. > The reason becomes quickly clear as a squadron of flock of rock doves bursts from the building - hooting angrily at the disturbance, their stony bodies crusted with briny accumulations from so long by the sea.
  5871. "...well, that settles that. We're safe."
  5872. > "What's up down there, Spitfire?"
  5873. > You laugh a bit.
  5874. "Nest of rock doves down here. They're a real pest. Steal food like you wouldn't believe, but a good kick will break them up. No sane settlement tolerates them around; they're right below Parasprites when it comes to pests."
  5875. > "So, if they're nesting..."
  5876. "It's abandoned. Come on in; do you want one of us up there to fly copilot?"
  5877. > "No-"
  5878. > Renaud's laugh is scratchy, but amused.
  5879. > "-I'm old enough that I think I can pull off a landing on my own. But, if you wanted to come up and fly alongside, walk me in, I wouldn't object."
  5880.  
  5881. > The bay is large enough that it's little trouble, but you don't trust tying the plane up against any of the rotting wharves or near the half-sunken hulks.
  5882. > That feels like just asking for a hidden beam to spear the plane's hull.
  5883. > Instead the Mars is tied up to a piling further out in the bay - where there is plenty of room for it to swing around in the storm-wash to its heart's content.
  5884. > The moment the lines are knotted securely you climb aboard.
  5885. "We should find one of the better-looking buildings in town to ride out the storm in. In case anyone wants to go ashore."
  5886. > "I thought you said we'd be sheltered here, Soarin?"
  5887. > "We are."
  5888. > The stallion snorts, shaking his head.
  5889. > "But this thing isn't exactly stable. Notice how we tend to lean slightly to one side in the water? That's going to be swaying back and forth once the wind comes up. If anyone here is seasick..."
  5890. "Plus, just on the off-chance something terrible does happen, we need a place to store everything."
  5891. > That got everyone listening.
  5892. > No one - human or pony - felt like being trapped in a sinking plane.
  5893. > And so a little inflatable boat is duly unpacked and inflated; while it was taking the first lot to shore, you find Cog Whirl with his forehead pressed to a bulkhead, eyes half-closed.
  5894. "Hey, you okay?"
  5895. > "Yeah, I'm good. Just - listening to the plane a bit."
  5896. > He pauses, lips twisting up into a smile.
  5897. > "Listening to it speak."
  5898. "Think it's going to hold?"
  5899. > "Oh, it's not going to fall to pieces. This is a tough old bird."
  5900. > There's a little bit of sadness in his voice, though, and a moment later he adds in:
  5901. > "Just feels a little like we're leaving one of our own behind."
  5902. > You can't help but adding a grin to that.
  5903. "What, we've only been on this thing for what - a month or two? Here, a few weeks? You getting attached already?"
  5904. > He chuckles, straightening up and tossing back his mane.
  5905. > "Feels a bit different when you can feel it like it's a living thing, you know?"
  5906. "Guess it would."
  5907.  
  5908. > "Spitfire! What's going on in there?"
  5909. > The call from outside turns one of your ears.
  5910. > Somehow you hadn't even heard the boat come back.
  5911. "Come on. They need to be going."
  5912. > While Cog is restricted to waiting for the little inflatable to putter its way to shore, you simply wing your way over.
  5913. > Which means you have a front row seat to watch Alicia stumble out of the boat, splash a few steps through the water up on to dry land, and just...
  5914. > Stop.
  5915. > Mouth slightly open and eyes wide.
  5916. > Staring, wordlessly, at the empty ruination.
  5917. > Eyes roaming the peeling paint, cracked walls, and scorched remnants.
  5918. > "Hey, Alicia? You okay? You didn't get seasick just from that little ride, did you? Definitely can't stay on the plane then-"
  5919. > "No, no. It's not that..."
  5920. > Alicia swallows, takes a few numb steps forward, and just - stops.
  5921. > One hand rising up, as if stretching up to touch the damaged buildings.
  5922. > Renaud takes her hand, leading her on, and it finally clicks with you.
  5923. > Oh.
  5924. > Her home.
  5925. > Destroyed by raiding ponies.
  5926. > Right.
  5927. > The building chosen for shelter by some unspoken decision had been a better-built business - walled with thick rocks, probably quarried from the surrounding hills, and with a slate roof only missing a few tiles.
  5928. > The interior might’ve been painted once, but the seaside air had already reduced said paint (and what must have once been a painting hung on the wall) to little crumbled piles in the corners:
  5929. > Quickly swept aside, along along with a host of dried-out folios of what might have once been business records but were now just illegible blurs.
  5930. > Lanterns still hung from the ceiling, but with no wax, oil, or magic to light them they were reduced to just being holders for battery-powered lamps hung on them.
  5931. > Most of the furniture had already been thrown out, and what wasn't was now creaking under a rapidly-growing assortment of supplies.
  5932. "Think this'll hold up to the storm?"
  5933. > "Eh..."
  5934.  
  5935. > Renaud runs a hand along the sill of a broken window - now with the remnants of a table pressed up against it to deflect rain or spray.
  5936. > "Might be a bit gusty, might be a bit wet. But it'll keep."
  5937. > There's still a bit left to do on the plane - tape secured over the airspeed pitot tubes, locking the controls, and securing the engine intakes.
  5938. > After that, though, comes the worst part:
  5939. > The waiting.
  5940. > Lunch was had, cooked on a small gas stove someone had brought out - which is a marginal improvement on the downright mediocre reheated meals aboard the plane - but after that...
  5941. > You're almost glad when you catch Alicia slipping out of the door; it gives you something else to think about.
  5942. > On the cobblestone roads, your hooves could probably be heard a mile away; fortunately, there are plenty of rooftops.
  5943. > For a good twenty minutes at least Alicia simply wanders the streets.
  5944. > Shuddering when sudden bursts of wind come scuttling down the empty streets.
  5945. > Looking at the empty windows, doors hanging at wild angles, flowerpots crowned by the wilted remnants of dead plants, and half-collapsed stalls.
  5946. > Above, the sky grows steadily darker - slipping from merely ‘grey’ past ‘slate’ to an ugly, blotchy stone-grey which worries you.
  5947. > Finally she stops in front of one of the burnt-our husks of a building, just staring up at it with her arms slack
  5948. > Thunder rumbles in the distance; that ought to be your cue, but you feel like you are... invading something by interrupting her.
  5949. > Still, when she actually starts climbing into the charred ruins themselves you figures that's about far enough.
  5950. > Gliding down from the rooftop on silent wings, you touch down with a loud enough 'click' of hooves on cobblestones that you figure Alicia must have heard you.
  5951. > She doesn't move, though, instead remaining still in the building - staring up at the jagged, blackened spikes of beams that had once supported the second floor.
  5952.  
  5953. > Stepping forward, you tap twice on the ground with a hoof.
  5954. > When that still doesn't provoke anything, you're left with no option but to speak up.
  5955. "Hey, Alicia?"
  5956. > She is still standing there - arms still limp at her sides and head tilted back.
  5957. > A single note of fear begins to sound within you.
  5958. "Everything okay, in there? You should probably come out; it might not be safe."
  5959. > "It's... just like home was."
  5960. "Huh?"
  5961. > You cautiously take a few steps into the ashen ruins; immediately your nose is assaulted by the acrid stench of long-cold cinders, stirred up by your hooves' passing.
  5962. > "It..."
  5963. > Alicia finally levels her head again, turning back around to look at you.
  5964. > There's no anger in her eyes; that doesn't surprise you, as her voice already hadn't carried any warning notes.
  5965. > What does surprise you is how soft they are - how clearly the pain is written on her face in general.
  5966. > Tolerance of a professional co-worker aside, Alicia had never been particularly close with you.
  5967. > "When I came home, after my house was burned, I managed to sneak in past the police at the end of the road and get into the house itself."
  5968. > She looks around - eyes pausing on a collection of blackened spars that might have once been a table or bed.
  5969. > "I just stood there, right in the middle of it all, looking around. Looking up for where my room would have been where all my little-girl clothes would have been in the closet, my stuffed animals... then down again at all the other houses that'd been destroyed, then up..."
  5970. > Pausing, she sniffs and lifts an arm to roughly wipe her nose on the sleeve.
  5971. > "...it was just like this. One-hundred percent just like this."
  5972. "Oh..."
  5973. > You would join her in looking around, but you've extended one wing to cover your nose.
  5974. > Somehow, despite this fire burning out months ago, the freshly-stirred ashes seemed just as powerfully bitter a scent.
  5975. > "When did this...?"
  5976.  
  5977. "When did this happen? I - I don't know. Even before I was - captured, even before you humans got involved in all this, there were a lot of towns... burnt out. From accidents when the sickness was happening and there weren't enough ponies to handle fire fighting, from ponies desperate for anything, or when the griffons came in..."
  5978. > You find a more open spot among the ruin, one not so hemmed in by the acrid skeletons of a once-home.
  5979. "...it was the hardest thing for me, when I was a guard. Not fighting the griffons, or the humans. But seeing us defeat ourselves until we couldn't stop anyone else."
  5980. > "I... I didn't know... this place was always..."
  5981. > Seeming to struggle for words, Alicia tries to sit on the ruined stump of a pillar - then thinks better of it.
  5982. > "...didn't think it was anything like this here. I just thought... I dunno, you were always living in wherever, I guess. Little huts or something. But it wasn't like that, was it?"
  5983. “No. It wasn’t.”
  5984. > You take a step forward, wings fluttering.
  5985. > “It - it fucking sucks to see your home get fucked up, and you can’t do anything about it, huh?”
  5986. > Without a word, you shake your head.
  5987. “We tried to tell you, Alicia. When you were so angry at us, you couldn’t stop and think about it. This is where we were: You telling us, telling us we deserved it - but we’d already lost this! Did Kalendae need to be tortured too? Did Cog Whirl have to get addicted?”
  5988. > It’s... cathartic, to let all this anger out.
  5989. > Like you needed to; even though she’d been cooperating, she’d never really understood.
  5990. > Once the words start coming, it’s hard to let them stop.
  5991. “Did I have to get locked in a cage for months, for being angry I lost not just my home but my duty and everypony I cared about? Huh? Did any of us deserve this?!”
  5992. > In the distance, thunder rumbles again - as if heralding the sudden sharp wind that come gusting through.
  5993. > Something wet lands on your muzzle.
  5994.  
  5995. > And as if that droplet had blown out the flames of your anger, you feel the tirade end.
  5996. "Alicia, I... I think... I think we should go back now. It's not going to be bad at first, but I'd rather not get caught out here."
  5997. > "Yeah. You're probably right."
  5998. > She doesn’t move, though.
  5999. > There’s something wet on her cheeks, and it is not yet raining nearly hard enough.
  6000. > “I need - need to say sorry to them, huh?”
  6001. “I… we get angry, Alicia. We get angry about the things that are done to us. Don’t let them crush you; face up to them. It can be done. It’s called being responsible.”
  6002. > At last, she starts to walk.
  6003. > Though her pace is not fast - here and there she stops to look at the faded remnants of paint on a shop door, or a discarded pot rusting in a gutter - you don’t feel like urging her on to go faster.
  6004. > Some whisper at the back of your mind says that it’s a plainly mercenary choice; why interrupt her when she is having such a moment of clarity?
  6005. > But no.
  6006. > You'd had to give people - ponies - their space before.
  6007. > And right now Alicia needed her headspace.
  6008. > By the time you get back to the building where the others are camped out, the droplets are coming down in a regular beat - fat, heavy, and with loud plops.
  6009. > Even with the hills acting as a windbreak, a steady and cold breeze rolled down every street and spun from every alleyway.
  6010. > The bay's waters had already been stirred up when you landed, and were now energetically beating against the shore - tossing up bursts of spray and soaking the cobbled ground.
  6011. > Though you were already a good few hundred feet from it, every so often you'd catch a burst of salty water against your coat or wings.
  6012. > Sai Ahura is standing in the doorway when Alicia arrives.
  6013. > He gives her a clap on the shoulder and shakes his head.
  6014. > "We were just about ready to have to put together search parties!"
  6015. > Laughing softly, Alicia gives him a remorseful grin.
  6016.  
  6017. > "Sorry about that. I needed to - get a little fresh air, before we all spend more time cooped up again."
  6018. > The moment she is past the door, though, her expression falls again.
  6019. > You can feel the storm front before it actually arrives - a subtle pressure growing in your ears, feathers tingling with static electricity.
  6020. > An awareness, driven by every base pegasus instinct you have, that something bad is coming.
  6021. > Weather untamed.
  6022. > In an instant, the rain comes:
  6023. > Going from periodic, heavy droplets to a constant, fierce drumbeat and then to an omnipresent, dull roar in the space of a few heartbeats.
  6024. > No matter which way your ears turn, it surrounds you.
  6025. > Immediately Thomas comes down from the upper floor, displeasure written on his face.
  6026. > "Well, I think we've a half-dozen leaks up there at least... but the roof won't come down and we can stop most of it with buckets and towels, so that's good."
  6027. "Long as it holds."
  6028.  
  6029. > As the hours pass, what light filtered through the clouds begins to fade.
  6030. > Lantern-light, pale and ghost-like from the battery laps, replaces it.
  6031. > Most of the remaining stools, chairs, and other seats in the room had been claimed; Bell Curve was in a corner, writing in a little book while Thomas had produced some kind of a small computer and was idly playing games on it.
  6032. > Kalendae seems the least perturbed - finding a comfortable spot beneath a desk and happily curling up there with a blanket draped over the 'entrance' to her little 'cave'.
  6033. > Cog had, of course, taken a spot by her side; rather than rest, though, he was almost compulsively taking apart one of the radios and cleaning the insides with a small cloth.
  6034. > The reserve radio out to the plane is still holding up fine, and so you have little trouble calling out to it and raising someone.
  6035. > To your mild relief, Soarin answers:
  6036. > "Hey, Spitfire. How're you holding up in there?"
  6037. "Wet. Bored. But it's a little less tight-quarters than in there, so that's a nice change. Still, I-"
  6038. > Want to be out there with him.
  6039. > You catch your tongue, trying for something less - problematic.
  6040. "-I'm managing. How are you out there?"
  6041. > "It's actually not that bad. A little wobbly, but I've got a hammock strung up on the lower deck; if we start flooding, it'll come up here first. I think Logic Gate and Michelle are feeling it pretty bad, though; they're up in the locked-off room so they're feeling the swaying a bit more."
  6042. "Lucky you. I think what's getting to me the most is feeling this storm come in and not being able to do anything about it."
  6043. > "Bah!"
  6044. > Gerard must be somewhere nearby Soarin; his rough caw is easily heard through the radio.
  6045. > "I don't know how he is managing it. I feel the same way about the storm they do! My feathers itch!"
  6046. > "Well, I guess my pegasus-sense is just a little bit off today, huh?"
  6047.  
  6048. "Yeah, I'd have thought you'd be feeling it at least as much as me. Actually, I thought you'd be the one taking it the best, Gerard. Griffons don't schedule their weather, is this really that bad for wild-storms?"
  6049. > His hard, biting laugh is made even more scratchy by the radios.
  6050. > "It is not, but that does not mean I wish to be caught in a boat in the middle of it. Do you remember the tale I told of the swaying tree near my aerie? This is ten-fold worse!"
  6051. “Is it really that awful? I mean, if the plane’s in danger, Kalendae, Soarin, and I can go up and try to get it under control… at least break some of the worst of it up over the storm.”
  6052. > There’s a brief noise of scuffling as they talk it over
  6053. > Eventually Soarin comes back on:
  6054. > “I knocked on the door up there, Michelle and Logic Gate are holding out okay. Gerard’s looking a little green, but he says he can handle it too. I think he just doesn’t want to be shown up in front of a pony.”
  6055. “I bet it. Well, you just tell him if he throws up, make sure he gets it outside. We don’t need the plane to be smelling like griffon-vomit for days.”
  6056. > An outraged squawk in the background suggests he heard that comment, and you grin.
  6057. “Just, hang on out there. Anonymous is shooting me a look that says stop wasting the radio's batteries, so I'll let it go now. Let us know if it gets bad."
  6058. > "You got it. Watch the lights, we'll keep ‘em on."
  6059. “I hear you.”
  6060. > Sure enough, if you peer out one of the second-story windows, you can barely see the flash of the navigation lights.
  6061. > Impulsively, you lug a flashlight up to the window and flash it back.
  6062. > Back downstairs, Alicia had taken up residence in one corner - sitting with her back to a wall and knees tucked up close to her chest.
  6063. > Her expression was still a distant one, lips moving but producing no sounds.
  6064. > Until finally she heaves herself upright and wanders over to where Cog Whirl was resting.
  6065.  
  6066. > Danger prickles down your spine, and you start to rise as well.
  6067. > So too does Cog lift his head, watching her with wary eyes and splayed ears.
  6068. > But she only sits at a short distance from him, and - with great struggle - finds the words to speak:
  6069. > "I... I was kind of tough on you, Cog, when you were first coming in. I didn't want you taking over the spot Terry used to have, because I guess..."
  6070. > A hand rises to rub at her forehead, sweeping back her hair and huffing softly.
  6071. > "I guess I saw it like what happened to my family. Ponies coming in and - taking something. At someone else's loss, just because they could. After seeing it once, just watching it happen again..."
  6072. > She chokes, just for a moment.
  6073. > "...hurt."
  6074. > Alicia's voice is low, so low that you have to stretch out your neck to hear her words - and Cog's response:
  6075. > "S'okay. I was - a little bit of a shit when I got here too, and I'm not sure I'd blame you for not wanting me around."
  6076. > She gives kind of a barking, pained laugh.
  6077. > "Gerard got through to me eventually, I guess. Told me about how it'd - hit all the other ponies if I insisted on throwing you out."
  6078. > "I guess I owe him for that one too..."
  6079. > For a long moment the sound of the storm takes over - thunder rolling through with a heavy rumble that sets your feathers twitching.
  6080. > "...I was - pretty pissed, Cog. At ponies, I mean. Figured you were just out there trying to live off other peoples' work. So when you showed up-"
  6081. > "I kind of filled out all your expectations?"
  6082. > "Yeah."
  6083. > Rain speaks its wordless piece in the discussion, filling the air with its constant low hiss.
  6084. > Alicia grunts, pulling her knees up and folding her arms over them.
  6085. > "Dunno if Spitfire told you, but I never even saw a pony city before. Not real up close. And this place... it's a lot like what home looked like. So I guess - I guess I gave you a lot of shit when life was already giving you shit."
  6086. > Cog starts to say something, but then chooses otherwise.
  6087.  
  6088. > His neck stretches out, bringing his head around to nuzzle into her leg.
  6089. > "Just glad you gave me a second chance, Alicia."
  6090. > Her hand strays down, scratching his cheek.
  6091. > "Yeah, yeah. Just don't tell Kalendae, or she'll never let me-"
  6092. > "Aftoús tous dynatoús flyaríes! I am not so deaf in here, you know. And you have stolen my company too."
  6093. > The Thestral's voice is muffled from within her desk-hideaway-turned-bed.
  6094. > But she extracts herself, thankfully not commenting on the significant blush Alicia held, and takes back a place at Cog's side.
  6095. > “...heh, guess I owe you a bit of an apology too, huh?”
  6096. > “Aye.”
  6097. > Kalendae’s voice is hard, but not angry.
  6098. > And a second later she extends a hoof towards Alicia’s hand, her expression softening.
  6099. > “It is a hard thing, to feel alone, to have been hurt, and then see others looking down on you. It is harder yet to acknowledge that a failing is your own.”
  6100. > Alicia cautiously takes the hoof in her hand and gives it a little shake - a wary smile on her face.
  6101. > You, too, take the opportunity to scoot a little closer - wanting to hear this conversation as well.
  6102. > For his part the stallion gives Kalendae a brief nuzzle before looking back to Alicia.
  6103. > "My home wasn't quite like this, actually. In fact, it was pretty big - there was an iron foundry on the north edge of town, we hung up there."
  6104. > "So that's where you got your, uh, butt-mark thing?"
  6105. > "At the foundry?"
  6106. > Cog Whirl Laughs.
  6107. > "Nah, not quite. That was when I started watching them fix the trains."
  6108. > He gives a wistful sigh, leaning in to Kalendae.
  6109. > "I dunno what that's like for you humans, but for us... those locomotives were the biggest, most impressive things I'd ever seen. They weren't just machinery, they were living, snorting, huffing beasts."
  6110. > You laugh softly - that wasn't too different from how many pegasi described the winds - and so does Alicia.
  6111. > In fact, she does more; she grins and nods in solid agreement.
  6112.  
  6113. > Cog, meanwhile, goes on:
  6114. > "...guess that was when we first heard about the sickness, too. When the trains stopped coming. Of course, that means the foundries went out pretty soon too, and ponies started to get worried. We had plenty of food, but - that was some ponies' lives. And it wasn't stopping; the Element-bearers or Princesses or anything weren't fixing it."
  6115. "It was the same way in Cloudsdale.”
  6116. > "Eventually they had to shut things down. Ran out of fuel. It wasn't just like turning a machine off. It was like..."
  6117. > He hesitates, a hoof extended as though reaching out to stroke something.
  6118. > "...it was like killing an animal. Something big, majestic, powerful. Then - dead. After that, supplies started running low."
  6119. > Another huff, and the hoof to the floor with a loud clop.
  6120. > "The foundries had enough to keep the tools and spears for a while, but there wasn't anyone out there. Eventually the sickness got to us anyway. I don't know when it started, but some ponies started getting out too. Taking their tools or their last harvests and trying to get out."
  6121. "It was like that everywhere. Everypony looking for where that was - safe."
  6122. > "Yeah. When nopony had enough left to make it on their own, then they got really scared. Started taking from others and slipping off in the night. We didn't get destroyed. We tore ourselves apart."
  6123. > Kalendae makes a low, angry noise in her throat and Cog leans over to give her a reassuring nuzzle.
  6124. > For her part, Alicia had listened to the story with a troubled expression.
  6125. > Now she reaches out to place a palm on his withers - the first time you've ever seen her touch a pony with anything resembling kindness.
  6126. > For a moment Kalendae seems to be debating whether to snap at the touch, jealousy flickering in her eyes.
  6127. > But she doesn't, a fact for which you are deeply relieved.
  6128.  
  6129. > "Funniest thing is... I'm kind of glad they ran out of fuel for the foundries before they started cutting up the machinery I used to tinker with. 'course, they're probably rusting away in a field now, but that feels better than - than -"
  6130. > "Watching them get chewed to pieces?"
  6131. > Alicia interjects, earning a little laugh and nod from Cog.
  6132. > After that, the room falls quiet - as quiet as it can be.
  6133. > Wind-blown rain spatters against the window like hailstones; a little water drips from the edge of the table someone had pushed in front of it.
  6134. > Across the room, Thomas coughs softly.
  6135. > "Well, as long as we seem to be telling stories..."
  6136. > His chair scrapes loudly along the floor as he pulls it up.
  6137. > "...I guess a lot of people think that I was already sympathetic to ponies or something before slavery began, and I guess I kind of thought they were... nice, but I'd like - never met one, y'know?"
  6138. > By now everyone else had pulled in as well, drawn by some invisible magnetism to join in the small circle.
  6139. > Welcome company, amid the storm's fury.
  6140. > "I was at the company headquarters, though, and just about immediately after the intervention began and troops went in a pony turned up there. Sweet little unicorn, had a cutie mark of an inkwell and feather-pen. Liked to keep her mane all done up in a bun. But what really got me is... I could see how relieved she was. That all she was asked to do was little jobs around the office. Janitor's stuff."
  6141. > Relieved, you wonder, that she had been removed from a collapsing ruin of a nation?
  6142. > Or that she had not been sent somewhere worse.
  6143. > "She couldn't stop thanking us enough. First I thought it was because it was comfy here. Then I saw her looking at a picture of Equestria, and she just looked... so sad. So empty. She wasn't happy. Just scared."
  6144. > Thomas rubs his nose, looking at the floor.
  6145.  
  6146. > "We talked a bit, and when I heard about this project I thought, why don't I get on it? Show them what ponies and humans really working together are like. Not one for the other."
  6147. "That's when you found Bell Curve and Logic Gate?"
  6148. > The stallion in question laughs softly, having joined the circle at some point as well.
  6149. > "Logic came to Thomas about that time. Me, I was a little bit later."
  6150. > "Yeah. I... It's not right, keeping ponies constantly in fear. The epidemic’s gone down; no matter what happened in the past-"
  6151. > He shoots a glance to Alicia.
  6152. > "-we should be fighting for a better future for every one of us."
  6153. "Got to admit, I didn't think it really felt that way when you blackmailed us into joining."
  6154. > "Wait, Thomas, you what?!"
  6155. > Bell Curve had sat up unexpectedly, anger flashing across his face until you signal him to back down with one wing and a low nicker.
  6156. "It's fine, Bell. I'm - over it now, I guess."
  6157. > Not really, but the pain isn't so sharp and fresh.
  6158. > "Still... what the hell, Thomas?"
  6159. > Thomas grimaces.
  6160. > "If I say it's for a better end, I'll sound like an ass. But you wouldn't have believed me, I couldn't have explained it in time..."
  6161. > A hand rises to rub his nose.
  6162. > Suddenly the room doesn't seem so quiet and peaceful after all.
  6163. > Rather than shielding you from the storm outside, it seems to trap you within.
  6164. > The rain beating on the walls and roof seem much more like a challenge, or maybe a threat.
  6165. > As if the storm has been come to sit in the room too.
  6166. > Thomas huffs, a remarkably pony-like noise.
  6167. > "But it really was. There wasn't anyone else who could have done this, and if I'd sat you down and talked the whole thing out... you wouldn't have believed me. I needed you for this, not just because you can fly, but because you'd understand."
  6168. "So - hold up - are you saying it was your plan to coerce us into doing this job?!"
  6169.  
  6170. > "I mean - I was the one who recommended you. Hell, I begged Gregory Whitworth to stick with you. But he was the one who dug up what you were doing for him, and first suggested blackmail if you didn't agree."
  6171. > First suggested, you notice.
  6172. > But not the only one who agreed.
  6173. > Anonymous rises, eyes hard, and sucks down a deep breath.
  6174. > "Y'know, Thomas, one of the real hard lessons I had to learn with Spitfire is that I couldn't just force her into playing along forever. Maybe you should start thinking about that too."
  6175. > Then he stalks away - shoes thunking up the wooden stairs to the second floor.
  6176. > Thomas watches him go, but smartly doesn't call after him; instead, he looks to you.
  6177. > "I guess you're pretty pissed off at me too, huh?"
  6178. "...kinda. I mean, I think it bites less because I was already enslaved, and in the end this gave me a route to free more ponies - but you're not earning any friends, that's for sure."
  6179. > Eyes falling down to the floor, Thomas nods.
  6180. > "Yeah, I get it. But - just wait until the end. This is going to change everything. It's going to be the thing that gets ponies set free. Trust me on this."
  6181. > His voice is filled with emotion, though.
  6182. > More than expectation or hope, it's almost devotion - he's certain that whatever this is, the change it brings will be massive.
  6183. "...just - next time you have a big fancy idea like this? Try telling people about it first."
  6184. > Thomas nods an assent, but stays quiet.
  6185. > You want to say more, but sometimes it’s better not to press things.
  6186.  
  6187. "What about you, Bell Curve?"
  6188. > You give the stallion a nudge.
  6189. "You another 'convert to the cause' like Logic Gate?"
  6190. > Laughing, the stallion shakes his head.
  6191. > "I mean - what we're doing? It's nice, but she's really into it. When I'm done? I'll be just as happy to go find some place of my own. Here."
  6192. “Yeah, but you’re not on the, uh… you’re not under Anonymous, so you’re going back to work when this is done…?”
  6193. > “When it’s done, but Logic Gate is right. This’ll be changing a lot of things. I’ve got to keep believing I’ll be able to go home after that.”
  6194. > "Bell's a good worker, but I don't blame him for wanting to go home."
  6195. > Sai gives a little laugh, patting the stallion affectionately on the back.
  6196. > "Hell, I get homesick sometimes, and I only moved to Canada when I was a little kid. Him…? I can’t imagine what it’s like for him or Logic Gate."
  6197. > Anonymous soon reappears back downstairs, looking somewhat calmed over again.
  6198. > You wander over to his side, giving a low questioning nicker and rubbing against his leg.
  6199. > "Everything okay down there, Spitfire?"
  6200. "Just being packed in here is getting to me. Actually, I'm going to go outside and do a quick survey. See what the storm's up to."
  6201. > "Got it. Take a radio, let us know if you get in trouble."
  6202. > He doesn't look happy about it, but there's not a word of protest out of him.
  6203. > You rear up briefly to place a hoof on his shoulder.
  6204. "I'll be fine. This is bad, but I'm no fledgling flyer blundering into a storm."
  6205. > "I gotcha, Spits. Still... be careful."
  6206. > Careful isn't an option out here; it's mandatory.
  6207. > Beating sheets of rain spatter down on you the second you step out the door.
  6208. > Wind-driven spray whips about your hooves; with nopony to clean them, Marechester's drains had backed up and now every street in sight had streams of water flowing down it to the bay.
  6209.  
  6210. > A brief hop brings you up to the roof of the building you'd been staying at; you turn out to the bay, where the plane was barely just visible through the downpour.
  6211. > You'd bound a heavy flashlight to your barrel, and now lift a hoof to tap its switch twice.
  6212. > On the fourth repetition, someone flashes back.
  6213. > Good; they're still there.
  6214. > With that, you lower your goggles down onto your eyes and take off straight up like a rocket.
  6215. > The trick with thunderstorms was to get up past the bottom cloud boundary - past the vicious downdrafts and shear-winds that would drive an unwary pegasus into the ground - as quickly as possible.
  6216. > Harder than normal with this rain soaking your wings and feathers, but not impossible.
  6217. > Bursting up through the clouds, you breach an open pocket of cloudless air.
  6218. > Not too much further now; the second layer of cloud - dark, roiled, and heavy with unspent moisture - lay somewhere above.
  6219. > The air around you felt alive, touching some primal instinct of the primitive pegasus within you, and you answer its crashing call with a joyous whinny of your own.
  6220. > With your nostrils you smelled the humidity in the air, with your ears you heard the shifts in temperature in the rushing of air around you; in your feather-tips you feel the buzz of charge.
  6221. > In the distance, lightning flickered down from the cloud, touched ground, and then snapped back up with an eye-searing flash.
  6222. > You steer away from that; a pegasus might live through the down-stroke, but rising lightning would kill.
  6223. > Piercing through the top cloud layer like a javelin, you find yourself hovering above a sea of ash-grey angry clouds, festooned by the plateaued tops of thunderheads.
  6224. > A glance back down confirms that yep - you'd burst through the clouds with minimum other disruption; already the hole made by your passage was closing up.
  6225. > Further yet above, the sky was tinged with the last fading light of dusk.
  6226.  
  6227. > In the distance there was maybe the slight hint of ocean on the horizon, but mostly just more clouds.
  6228. > For a brief few minutes, though, you circle above the clouds - relishing the opportunity to fly free and unrestrained.
  6229. > Stretching the wings you hadn't had proper opportunity to really put to the test for the longest time.
  6230. > There was something uniquely alive in the midst of a storm.
  6231. > A sense of challenge, of danger - but tamed danger, one that you could fly circles around.
  6232. > You were no lumbering plane; you were Cloudsdale’s finest, a knife in the air, the wind itself your wings.
  6233. > ...freedom.
  6234. > That’s what you’d been missing.
  6235. > The freedom to cavort and dance among the clouds as you saw fit.
  6236. > But even now you can't linger for too long; eventually your teammates would get worried.
  6237. > Dropping back down through the clouds is as simple as finding an obliging downdraft and riding it down with your wings still; at the last moment you break from the wind and turn bring yourself back under your own power again.
  6238. > Surfing low over Marechester, you suddenly bank hard as movement catches the corner of your eye in one of the streets (well, movement other than the torrential downpour flooding them).
  6239. > Coming around again, this time you all but hug the battered rooftops.
  6240. > Had you missed somepony in that initial sweep…?
  6241. > Or had that just been -
  6242. > No!
  6243. > There!
  6244. > A dark shape, hugging close to the walls.
  6245. > Folding your wings into a dive, you come soaring down out of the skies like a bolt of lightning -
  6246. > And brake hard, your eyes going wide.
  6247. “Kalendae?! Celestia damn it, I just about pinned you to the ground!”
  6248. > “Ahahaha, My Captain - forgive me, I would not have let you!”
  6249. > Orange eyes sparkling, she trots around in a low circle and greets you again with a toothy, cat-like grin.
  6250. “What are you even doing out here? They let you out to go for a flight too?”
  6251.  
  6252. > “Ah, My Captain - let me simply say that it is quite a good thing this rain will wash away certain scents, yes?”
  6253. > All but purring, she stretches luxuriously - half-spreading her leathered wings to let the droplets form little streams running off the.
  6254. > “I did go out, yes. And my dear friend Cog? Such a gentlestallion, going out with me to use his horn to light the way, knowing my senses of hearing and sight were dimmed by this tremendous storm...”
  6255. > Wait, what did she mean by ‘certain scents’?
  6256. > And why did it matter that Cog -
  6257. > Oh.
  6258. > Red tinges your muzzle as you realize her meaning, and Kalendae laughs.
  6259. > “Is it such a shameful thing, that we would find a few moments aside for ourselves?”
  6260. “You’re incorrigible. They let both you and Cog out at once?!”
  6261. > The stallion himself pops out of a nearby alleyway, calling back with a tilted head:
  6262. > “Kalendae? Are you - Spitfire?”
  6263. “...yeah. So, you two sneaking out for a little fun, huh? I don’t know what you told them to let you out, but it’d better have been worth it - ‘cause if you get in trouble, I’m not standing up for either of you!”
  6264. > Cog glances to Kalendae, a slightly dopey smile crossing his face.
  6265. > “Very worth it.”
  6266. > She gives off another purr, sauntering past him with a flick of her tail that brushes against his chin; you just roll your eyebrows.
  6267. “...let’s just get back.”
  6268. > In fact, no one so much as raises an eyebrow when the three of you stride back in... which only makes you wonder more.
  6269. > Not that you say anything; no way you would make trouble for those two if no one else was!
  6270. > While you were gone the others had started making up dinner; on arrival, Anonymous obligingly points to a bowl of still-hot pasta in the corner.
  6271. > "Figured you'd want it all heated up."
  6272. "Yeah. Thanks a ton."
  6273. > He settles back in his seat of choice, across the room.
  6274.  
  6275. > Pacing yourself between bites - no sense rushing; these meals weren't large! - you at first take a spot off to the side of the ground floor.
  6276. > Then you reconsider.
  6277. > Anonymous looks over as you set the bowl down beside him and take a bite of the next bit of pasta.
  6278. > "Something up, Spitfire?"
  6279. "Eh..."
  6280. > You swallow and shoot him a lopsided grin.
  6281. "...is it that surprising that I wanted to just come sit beside you?"
  6282. > "Heh, guess not."
  6283. "It's been a while since it's been - just us, y'know?"
  6284. > "Yeah, it certainly has been, hasn't it?"
  6285. > His arm works its way around your withers as continue eating.
  6286. > "Guess between hours flying and conking out when you're off-duty, we haven't really had a chance to just sit down."
  6287. > You snort, but he has a point.
  6288. > Strangely, being cooped up in here left you feeling energized for the first time in a while - though how much of that was due to the storm constantly prickling at the edges of your senses, was hard to say!
  6289. "It's been pretty rough."
  6290. > Swallowing another bit of pasta, you pause to lean over against him.
  6291. "...I'll be honest, I kind of miss when it was just us two out there - you and me taking care of business by the skin of our teeth."
  6292. > The constant hiss of wind-driven rain keeps the others from hearing your words, or his when he leans over into you.
  6293. > "What, not up for the rest of the crew? I figured you'd love having a real 'team' again."
  6294. "I mean, don't get me wrong. It's been great having them here, and some days I still can't quite believe that I'm going to be able to see them free when this is done. But... it was also nice just being close. Having to think, plan, be challenged. Here, it's just - making sure nobody eats each other when I'm not looking."
  6295. > "Hey, I think you're doing a fine job keeping anyone from being chowed on."
  6296. > You laugh and duck from his attempted attack on your mane.
  6297. > "What about Soarin, though?"
  6298. "Soarin... I..."
  6299. > You hesitate.
  6300. > It was fantastic to have Soarin back, wasn't it?
  6301.  
  6302. > So why did it hurt to admit that?
  6303. > Gradually you become aware that your ears had pinned back, and you pop them back up before Anonymous can read too much into it.
  6304. "...I guess everything is so much different from before, it's all dragging on me. Plus, like you said, I've been crashing into bed practically the second I get off-duty."
  6305. > "Heh. Well-"
  6306. > Again his arm circles around your barrel, this time to pull you against his side and give your withers an affectionate rub.
  6307. > "-for what it's worth, I'm super glad you're here on this run. It's much, much better this way. Without you, Prettybird, I'd honestly be totally lost at this point."
  6308. > You feel yourself lean over into his touch, heart swelling.
  6309. > Even the nickname rouses no ire in your heart.
  6310. “...same, friend.”
  6311. > For a time, you hold that pose - an ear flicking now and then, blanketed in the sound of the storm and the sense of just being… appreciated.
  6312. > It’s a welcome sense, and somehow something that feels like it has been missing.
  6313. > Your own private moment, away from -
  6314. > “Awww, look at them! Sai, Thomas, quick, get your camera and take a picture-”
  6315. “Oh, like Tartarus you will!”
  6316. > “Quick quick quick, before she gets out-”
  6317. “I swear to Celestia, if there are pictures by the end of tonight-!”
  6318.  
  6319. ------
  6320.  
  6321. > Sleeping bags had been provided for those who needed them, and although there was still a bed upstairs you really didn't trust the way it looks.
  6322. > Instead you slept bundled up, the low moaning of the wind as it swept through the streets of Marechester granting you a lullaby to rest to.
  6323. > But that wasn't quite enough to bring you rest.
  6324. > Something still itched at the back of your mind - a sense that there was danger here, there was threat.
  6325. > Eventually you climb from the sleeping bag with a grumble.
  6326. > Fumbling in the dark, you find the lantern and switch it on to a dim glow - revealing the maze of sleeping forms on the floor.
  6327. > And a pair of golden, slitted eyes watching you from across the room.
  6328. > Kalendae weaves between the obstacles with an almost feline grace, coming to join you in a fairly isolated corner.
  6329. > "Sleep eludes you, My Captain?"
  6330. "Yeah. S'funny, I'm actually exhausted but - I don't know. Just... thoughts bouncing around in my head, trying to get them straight."
  6331. > "I know the sense."
  6332. > She settles on her haunches beside you, a light smile on her lips.
  6333. > "...would it seem wrong if I requested to hear your thoughts, My Captain?"
  6334. "No. But, to throw that back at you... would it be bad if I said this whole thing is getting to me?"
  6335. > "You would not. It is known to us, My Captain; I am not some short-toothed recruit who believes officers are invulnerable bastions. You are a pony still."
  6336. "Hah. True enough."
  6337. > It takes a moment to gather your thoughts.
  6338. "...I don't know if it's the constant work, or having Equestria so close, or being apart from Soarin so much. Or, Tartarus - maybe having the team thing I had with Anonymous changed."
  6339. > You shrug with your wings, closing your eyes - not that it matters much in the near dark.
  6340. "I'm not sleeping well or something, 'cause I'm exhausted half the time. And I can't help but feel something is off."
  6341. > "You are not the only one disquieted. I believe many of us are nervous of what may come."
  6342.  
  6343. > Cracking your eyes back open, you look at her with a tilted head.
  6344. "Yourself? Or... Cog?"
  6345. > "He fears what tomorrow may bring. That he will finish this job, be freed... and find himself aimless again. With nowhere else to go."
  6346. "There've got to be places that would welcome a pony with his talents. Even if he doesn't want to live under the puppets in the Special Governance Zone, if he makes his way north to the princesses, to the free ponies up there-"
  6347. > "It is not that he fears not finding a job. It is falling into that hopelessness again that troubles him. He speaks of it as if every step were made thick mud."
  6348. > Though you can see little more than hazy outlines in the dark she is smiling.
  6349. > "He whispers these things in my ears sometimes, as we rest together. All his little fears. I believe it helps him, knowing that there are others who share his fears and persevere regardless."
  6350. "Have you told him about Princess Luna?"
  6351. > "Yes. That would be, I think, another reason why he trusts me with his fears. He understands my own."
  6352. “And I guess at some point you ended up… together.”
  6353. > “Is it so unusual…? Yes, we desired each other. I…”
  6354. > She pauses again, and though you think there is still a bit of that smile there her eyes also swim with dampness.
  6355. > “...it is relief to me, in more ways than one.”
  6356. “How do you mean?”
  6357. > “After all that was done to me, all that was forced on this body of mine…”
  6358. > A wing extends, the little metal band pierced through the webbing and going around her leading bone glinting in the dim light.
  6359. > “...do you know what it feels like to be told that I am still beautiful? Still worthy of a stallion’s bed? To know that they were at least not able to take that from me?”
  6360. > You don’t know.
  6361. > Or what to say.
  6362. > Instead, you just slip a wing around Kalendae until her own folds back against her side and she softens against you.
  6363. > “I fear I am - using him sometimes. Leading him on for my own pride.”
  6364.  
  6365. "No. You aren’t. He's lucky to have that. Not just someone to bed; someone that close he can admit everything to."
  6366. > "Yet you have your -"
  6367. > She pauses, hesitates.
  6368. > "-Anonymous, do you not? To listen to your concerns."
  6369. > Your eyebrows rise in amusement.
  6370. > Using his name, not just ‘master’?
  6371. "Was that actual respect for him? I'll be damned, Kalendae - you actually think of him like that?"
  6372. > Even with just an outline, you can see Kalendae's tail flick and her cheeks puff as she fluffs herself up.
  6373. > "No, I am - I mean - I have seen how he interacts with you! I recognize the two of you are close, that is all."
  6374. > Aww.
  6375. > Even just her accepting that...
  6376. > You smile as well.
  6377. "...well, just don't forget - I'm here if you need somepony to speak to too."
  6378. > "I... thank you. Take your rest now, My Captain. These are my hours, and I shall keep watch."
  6379.  
  6380. --------
  6381.  
  6382. > Dawn comes clear and bright, cutting through the crumbling clouds with golden rays.
  6383. > Though the bay's waters are still choppy and running fast with the remnants of the previous night's storms, the boat ride back out to the plane isn't much trouble.
  6384. > You do steal a moment to nuzzle Soarin as the others are deflating the boat and packing it up.
  6385. "...missed you last night. Did they have you doing much?"
  6386. > "No, not really. Just checking to make sure we weren't getting swamped. The auxiliary generator kept me up all night."
  6387. > As if on cue, you let out a massive yawn.
  6388. "Yeah, I didn't sleep great either."
  6389. > "Well, now you're back, and that's just fine.”
  6390. > With yourself and Anonymous at the helm, the engines are soon roaring as the plane rises from the bay’s surface with a roar and burst of spray.
  6391. > "...I'll tell you this, though. When we get back to the Scatturlas, I'm going to demand they give us some new options for meals. The cheese stuff, it ain't bad. That 'meatloaf', though? Real fuckin' nasty."
  6392. "Yeah, well. Sorry, I wouldn't really know about that."
  6393.  
  6394. > Alicia actually laughs loud enough from her seat behind you that she can be heard without headphones.
  6395. > "Okay, you've got an advantage there, pony."
  6396. "What, did it give you the runs or something?"
  6397. > "No, but just - it's not meatloaf, except it's made out of cardboard that someone sprinkled a whole bunch of pepper on instead."
  6398. "Oh, so like that 'omelet' one."
  6399. > "No, it is worse."
  6400. > Gerard audibly shudders over the earphones.
  6401. > "Trust her on this, Spitfire. I do not know how they manage to ruin just a perfectly good bit of meat, but when I-
  6402. > A bang like a gunshot accompanies a jolt so violent it nearly throws you from the seat.
  6403. "Tirek's black balls!"
  6404. > "Shit!"
  6405. > "What the fuck was that?"
  6406. > You scan the instrument bank, but nothing seems out of place - except the plane is starting a slow yaw to starboard.
  6407. > But that can't be right; there's a wind-driven howling filling the plane from somewhere below.
  6408. "Alicia? Talk to me, I'm not seeing anything!"
  6409. > "...oil pressure, no; number three manifold temperature's high but not that high; blade pitch - engines are looking good, I don't know-"
  6410. > Thomas' voice crackles on the intercom.
  6411. > "What the hell is going on? Do my people need to get buckled in?"
  6412. > "Just hold on a second, Thomas!"
  6413. > Anonymous is nudging against the control yoke, trying to correct the yaw without potentially pushing the plane into an even-more dramatic maneuver.
  6414. > "Wind on the lower deck, I think we've got a hole!"
  6415. > Your earphones pop repeatedly as more and more of the off-duty crew plug their headsets into the intercom.
  6416. "Anonymous, trust my flying instincts - this doesn't feel like a control surface problem. It's got to be-"
  6417. > "My Captains, there is a hatch open! Lower deck bow compartment, to port!"
  6418. > Lower deck bow - that was yours and Anonymous' compartment.
  6419. > Someone curses in response to Kalendae's report; Renaud growls out a reply:
  6420. > "Soarin - come with me. We need to get it shut!"
  6421.  
  6422. > Perhaps a minute later another loud (though softer than the first) report resonates through the airframe.
  6423. > But more importantly, the vibration ceases.
  6424. > "Everyone, sound off. Make sure we're okay."
  6425. > "Anonymous, fine."
  6426. "Spitfire, fine."
  6427. > "Gerard, I think I struck my head on the table. I will be fine."
  6428. > "Alicia's good."
  6429. > "Kalendae is unharmed."
  6430. > And so it goes, down the second crew and Thomas' group, until only one name is left.
  6431. > "Where's Bell Curve?"
  6432. > No answer comes.
  6433. > Not injured, then... but not on the plane either.
  6434. > "There’s some stuff taken taken out from storage!”
  6435. > "Did he jump?"
  6436. > "But the radio collar-"
  6437. > You cut through the confused babble:
  6438. “Anonymous, give me a roll to starboard. I want to see if he’s out there.”
  6439. > On the second pass, you spot it:
  6440. > Bright squares of neon fabric close together, clearly visible against the treetops they were falling towards.
  6441. “...it’s one of the nylon bags we use for storage. Winds be damned, I think he actually did it. Must’ve - rigged a parachute or something with rope or… I don’t know.”
  6442. > Kalendae hisses over the intercom.
  6443. > “My Captain, I see it too. Let me go and find him.”
  6444. > “Do we have the fuel for that…?”
  6445. > Gerard clicks his beak and studies the map.
  6446. > “Perhaps, but…”
  6447. > He glances to you, and you can see the objection waiting:
  6448. > Why chase a pony who had jumped?
  6449. > “...fifteen, perhaps twenty minutes. No more.”
  6450. > With the others in agreement, Kalendae streaks from the plane like an arrow; you lose sight of her rapidly-disappearing form against the dark and camouflaging shore.
  6451. > Ten minutes later, she returns.
  6452. > Alone.
  6453. > Sweat-lathered and panting, there is still enough in her to give a report as she drops a ball of fabric on the floor.
  6454. > “I found it in the trees. There are ropes tied to holes cut in it. The other ends were cut.”
  6455. > She bows her head to you.
  6456. > “I could not find his path. Not in the time allotted.”
  6457. "I mean... wouldn't the collar..."
  6458.  
  6459. > "Bell Curve was smart pony."
  6460. > Renaud nudges the now-shapeless mass of nylon.
  6461. > "Look, he even cut vent holes in the top so it would be a smoother descent. He must have found a way to disable the collar."
  6462. > The ripple that runs through the room was... physical.
  6463. > If one pony could run - would run - it undermined everything about this mission.
  6464. > Anonymous is first to speak:
  6465. > "Not to break up the moment or anything, but what's our plan? Are we still heading for the Scatturlas, or we are turning in?"
  6466. "If we stop and find a place to land, we'll really be stretching our fuel limits."
  6467. > Thomas' eyes flick back and forth as he makes the calculation.
  6468. > "We... can't, can we? Unless we're really okay with being stranded. We have to... we have to leave him behind."
  6469. > A somber mood settles over everyone, spirits falling like the parachute Bell Curve had jumped with.
  6470. > The concept of danger had been known, sure, but having to straight-up leave someone behind...
  6471. > At least, you think, he was free.
  6472. > Leaving another in a grave...
  6473. > That would have been too much.
  6474. > But the betrayal still stings, even as your hooves and Anonymous' hands pull the plane into a shallow turn back towards the south.
  6475. > Celestia help you, if this is what takes the mission apart...
  6476. "I... I don't want to panic everyone, but - what happens now? What's our plan? We get back to the Scatturlas, and then what?"
  6477. > There's a long silence, and though you don't take your eyes off the instruments you can just imagine them looking between each other - struggling to come up with an answer.
  6478. > Finally Thomas speaks up:
  6479. > "I'll - talk to all my people. I think we can manage with five. It'll be a pain in the ass, but we can do it. And... I'm not going to see all the ponies here get fucked because Bell Curve decided to be a selfish fucking idiot."
  6480. > There's real pain in his tone, you realize, and only then do you think to wonder how this must be hitting him.
  6481.  
  6482. > The pony he'd worked so long with - who he'd trusted with whatever they had back there - was the one who'd fled in the end.
  6483. > A very, very personal betrayal.
  6484. > Yet a tiny voice in the back of your head whispers otherwise.
  6485. > That was the cost of slavery, it says; you could never be sure if a slave respected you, or just obeyed you.
  6486. > So when your turn to come off-shift comes, that's why you gathered the rest of your team together to speak to them again.
  6487. > Everypony looks miserable, but somehow you hadn't thought of the one who was clearly taking it worst of all:
  6488. > Logic Gate is huddled between Cog Whirl and Soarin - curled into a small ball, her ears flopped down and tail tucked around herself to make her profile as small as possible.
  6489. > You pause by her side to deliver a gentle nuzzle along her cheek, though it only yields a small whimper.
  6490. "Hey, I... I'm sorry. I don't think anyone was expecting this, and..."
  6491. > "They - they say we might give up. Go home..."
  6492. > Logic Gate curls up even further, tilting her head to draw her mane in front of her face.
  6493. > Trying to hide the obvious horror etched on her face.
  6494. > "...I don't want to go back..."
  6495. > Poor thing.
  6496. > She's probably afraid of being sent off to somewhere else if Thomas came back in disgrace.
  6497. > With a low nicker, you nudge at Logic Gate's side side with your muzzle until she finally rises.
  6498. "C'mon now. Help me get everypony together; they're feeling it just as much as you are and I want to talk to them all."
  6499.  
  6500. > You gather them into a group, clearing your throat as you try to find the right words.
  6501. "...look. Everyone's - everyone's pretty roughed up right now. I get it. But - we can't just all fall apart. Not yet. Not while we still have the rest to do."
  6502. > Looking between them, you half-spread your wings.
  6503. > Increasing your presence and making yourself look (hopefully) more imposing.
  6504. "Thomas says there's a chance we can still see this through to the end. Freedom can still be earned. We - we can't let this go. Looking after each other is what keeps ponies together. We can't let one pony deciding to check out on that stop the rest of us."
  6505. > The others are starting to nod, so you close in for the kill:
  6506. "We're off-kilter. We're a little scared, yeah. But we double-down. We show them - show Thomas, show Whitworth - that we're dedicated to seeing this through? I don't think we'll be let down."
  6507. > You only wish there was as much certainty in your heart as you were putting into your voice.
  6508. > But that couldn't be helped.
  6509. > If more ponies fled now, everything would be lost for sure.
  6510. > If they didn't there was still a chance.
  6511. > Slaves might not have hopes, but they had opportunities - and this is an opportunity you aren't willing to let go of yet.
  6512. > Stepping forward, you drop to your belly in front of Logic Gate and nicker gently:
  6513. "Logic... I'm sorry. You shouldn't have to go through this."
  6514. > Sniffling, she manages a soft nicker in return and shakes her head.
  6515. > "It's ... not your fault, though. I just... this is your team, Bell Curve was mine. I - I never expected of all ponies - we'd worked together for nearly two years!”
  6516. "I know, Gate. The things that hurt the worst are the blows that come from where you aren't looking. Because you ask, 'what could I have done better? Was there something I should have seen or said?' "
  6517. > You take the mare under a wing, guiding her up to a bed.
  6518.  
  6519. > Thomas' crew up there will have to just manage without another member for a few minutes longer.
  6520. > Settling on the mattress, Logic Gate leans her head into your side and stays there a long time - her horn crossing just beneath your throat.
  6521. > Looking up to the others, you nod to Soarin and Cog Whirl.
  6522. "Go up, get your shift started. I'll look after her."
  6523. > Soarin pauses to nuzzle you, and you answer with another low nicker before he, too, heads back up the stairs to the cockpit.
  6524. > Only then do you look back to Logic Gate and deliver another nuzzle.
  6525. > She sniffles softly, resting her cheek on your chest-fluff.
  6526. > "Why... why him in particular...?"
  6527. "I don't know, Gate."
  6528. > You sigh heavily, fluffing out your wings to provide a better blanket for the mare.
  6529. "There's something here I'm not quite seeing too. I - it's like I've got all the clouds in a line, but I'm not seeing the right flight-path to bust them all together, you know?"
  6530. > "Not a pegasus, but yeah - I get what you mean."
  6531. > She sighs again - or maybe it's closer to a half-sob.
  6532. > "Bell would have been the one who was good at that, you know? That was his Talent. Putting points of data together. Finding the signal in the noise."
  6533. "Whatever it is, though, remember what I said before. We're a team now. That includes you. We can still do this."
  6534. > Without any real response from her, it's hard to judge how much your words are having an impact on Logic Gate.
  6535. > But eventually she looks up at you through still-reddened eyes and murmurs softly:
  6536. > "Could you stay here a little longer? I"m not on-shift yet, and I - I don't want to be alone. Without any other ponies when I'm resting. I’m - I’m scared, Spitfire. Scared it’ll all be for nothing."
  6537. > I’m - I’m scared, Spitfire. Scared it’ll all be for nothing.
  6538. "We're all scared, Gate."
  6539. > But not like her, you can see.
  6540. > She's taking this way harder than you expected.
  6541. > Was there something to that...?
  6542. > A hint to what you were missing?
  6543.  
  6544. >>34438671
  6545.  
  6546. > Every officer-instinct you had said to pounce and pursue, but your heart wasn't entirely frozen over (despite what some subordinates may have joked).
  6547. > Pushing her right now would clearly do the poor mare no good.
  6548. "Sure thing though, Gate. You just say here; I won't be going anywhere soon."
  6549. > She eventually drifts off into a troubled sleep, head resting against your side.
  6550. > You do not; even when sleep unexpectedly tugs at your eyes.
  6551. > Anonymous comes by at some point, giving you a little knowing smile and a mug of warm soup for dinner.
  6552. "So, what's the plan...?"
  6553. > "Same as before. We're heading back to base to pick up more fuel. I think Thomas really does want us to keep going."
  6554. "I think that would be better."
  6555. > You look down beneath your wing where Logic Gate sleeps; she squirms a little in her sleep but doesn't wake.
  6556. "She needs to see this through. Whatever it is, it's so important to her that losing it would be... bad."
  6557. > "I know."
  6558. "Do you mind if I - stay here a while? Ponies like to stick together, and she just had the one she thought was closest to her skip out-"
  6559. > Anonymous ruffles your mane and stands up again.
  6560. > "I'll be in our bunk. You keep her good company, understand?"
  6561. "Crystal clear. Thanks."
  6562. > Eventually sleep finds even your wandering mind, and you pass out.
  6563. > It doesn't last nearly long enough.
  6564. > Rising for your shift is like climbing out of a pit filled with particularly thick mud; your body is slow and sluggish, your mind even worse.
  6565. > Coming to your hooves again sets your vision swimming and you wobble uncertainly before catching yourself.
  6566. > Anonymous - emerging from his (yours, really) chamber looks at you with clear worry.
  6567. > "Spits, you alright?"
  6568. "Yeah, just let me get up proper-"
  6569. > A few stretches and the nausea has faded.
  6570. > You shake yourself all over and stand up, the murkiness fading from the edges of your eyes.
  6571. "Better."
  6572. > "Spitfire, if you're feeling sick-"
  6573.  
  6574. "Just got up a little too fast, Anonymous. Trust me; I had to kick ponies out who weren't ready to fly plenty of times. I know what dangerously sick or tired looks like. I'm fine."
  6575. > He scratches in just that perfect spot between your wings and gives a nod.
  6576. > "Alright. Up we go then."
  6577. "Thanks. I'll tell you if something is really wrong."
  6578. > When you get up to the cockpit, however, no changeover is happening.
  6579. > Instead, both Cog Whirl and Soarin are huddled around the engineer's station - the former adjusting the myriad dials and knobs that keep the gigantic engines purring smoothly; the latter keeping his eyes pinned on the dials and gauges.
  6580. "What's up with you two?"
  6581. > "There's something wrong with one of the engines..."
  6582. > Cog Whirl had answered first, but it is Soarin who really explains:
  6583. > "He swears up and down he can feel something off with one of the engines. Pulled me off the navigation table to watch these."
  6584. "Cog, how bad is 'something wrong'?"
  6585. > "Dunno. Now, it - it's just not right. There's a feel, a vibration there shouldn't be."
  6586. > You'd dismiss those 'just a feels' - if you hadn't seen yourself how on-target Cog could be.
  6587. > Alicia comes up the stairs now, pulling on a sweater.
  6588. > "I heard there's something wrong. Soarin, set aside - let me take a look."
  6589. > While she sits down at the engineer's seat, you move up to the pilot and copilot's seats.
  6590. > Renaud and Kalendae don't say anything, but you can feel the tension radiating from them.
  6591. "How are you two holding up..?"
  6592. > "The skies are clear now, and Luna's stars show us the path But..."
  6593. > She hisses through her pointed teeth.
  6594. > "...I, too, feel the sense that something is wrong."
  6595. "Well, while they're figuring things out why don't Anonymous and I switch out with you two. Go downstairs, get some food, relax-"
  6596. > "Oh, shit!"
  6597. > An immediate, cold silence comes down over everyone as Cog Whirl swears.
  6598. > Renaud is back in command immediately:
  6599. > "What's the problem? Talk to me, Cog."
  6600.  
  6601. > "Something just went really wrong with engine three."
  6602. > Alicia chimes in in agreement:
  6603. > "Oil temperature's going up on the number three engine. Pressure's down in the radiator..."
  6604. > Everyone instinctively looks out the wing to starboard, a silent prayer passing every person's lips that there would not be smoke coming from the engine.
  6605. > There is not - so at least no fire.
  6606. > Kalendae had been half-out of the copilot's seat, but the second the announcement was made she had slid back into it - hooves on the control wheel and eyes focused ahead.
  6607. "Can you bring it under control?"
  6608. > "No way. I'm going to have to shut the engine down and feather the prop. We're down an engine."
  6609. > "Fuck!"
  6610. > "Can we make it back to the Scatturlas on that?"
  6611. > Soarin had already returned to the navigation table, but he doesn't even need to consult with it to be certain:
  6612. > "Dragging one engine? No way. Not a chance."
  6613. "Fuck! Soarin, find us a landing spot."
  6614. > In the end, you turn for the coast - touching down on the broad mouth of a smaller river as it approaches the sea.
  6615. > No sheltered bay here; fortunately the storm's passing had left the skies clear and open.
  6616. > That also meant there was still plenty of afternoon sunlight to investigate by.
  6617. > With safety belts firmly tied around them, Alicia and Cog Whirl scooted carefully out along the span of the wing - sticking carefully to the proper sections that would support them.
  6618. > Beside them fluttered yourself, Kalendae, and Soarin; Anonymous and Renaud hung further back, atop the plane's fuselage.
  6619. > Though time had been given for the engines to cool, you can still feel the heat radiating off of them as the woman and unicorn work together to lift the cowling.
  6620. > "Okay, careful now Cog. Just lift it up and hand it to the pegasi - good, good."
  6621. > With the cover out of the way, They are both able to lean over and peer into the cavity the engine nests within.
  6622.  
  6623. > To your eyes, it looks like nothing so much as a confusing, chaotic bundle of pipes, hoses, and components you can't even begin to guess at.
  6624. > Apparently they know better, because both go about examining the engine with flashlight and hand-cloth.
  6625. > "Ugh, there's oil everywhere. Spitfire, Soarin, can you hold these flashlights?"
  6626. "Sure thing."
  6627. > Clutching the little metal cylinder between your forehooves wasn't easy; Cog Whirl seemed to have some kind of headlamp on straps that made you mildly jealous.
  6628. > But with the two flashlights looking in, he and Alicia could really get to work delving in:
  6629. > "I don't know where all this oil came from, but we're really, really lucky it didn't vaporize or actually burn."
  6630. "I don't even want to think about that."
  6631. > Kalendae nods in agreement, then lets out a little yelp when Cog Whirl sticks out a hoof to touch the engine housing.
  6632. > "Anóite! Is that not hot as an oven?!"
  6633. > "It's just the hoof-wall. Not the frog; I can barely feel it. Alicia, can you tap the engine?"
  6634. > Shooting him an equally surprised look when he had touched the engine, she still fumbles for a screwdriver.
  6635. > "Yes, now let me just..."
  6636. > Tapping the tip once, twice, a third time against the engine body - she is all but leaning on for dear life in spite of the safety harness she wears.
  6637. " 'Ooo y'an' eee t'oo 'at?"
  6638. > "...what?"
  6639. > You spot the flashlight out and clutch it between your hooves.
  6640. "Do you want me to do that?"
  6641. > "No, but - actually, Kalendae, can you--?"
  6642. > It's awkward, but the Thestral manages to get a better angle than Alicia had; with his eyes half-closed Cog Whirl seems half-asleep or somewhere else in his head.
  6643. > "Yeah, it's... somewhere on the left, uh... Spitfire, see if you can get around there and get that light further in..."
  6644. > To your eyes, most of the engine looks more or less the same tangled mess of tubing and wires.
  6645.  
  6646. > Even so, when the light falls on a section of the engine covered in some blackened goo and sprayed oil then you know that must be exactly where the problem is.
  6647. > Cog Whirl recoils, while Alicia whistles softly.
  6648. > Scooting forward - so far you stretch out to grab her if need be - she jabs her screwdriver down into the muck and pulls some of it out.
  6649. > It's charcoal black and foul-smelling enough to make your gorge rise.
  6650. "What - what is that?"
  6651. > "I have no fucking clue. Did one of the sealing gaskets melt out or something?"
  6652. > Cog Whirl leans in to examine it more closely, but Alicia shakes her head.
  6653. > "If those melted out, all this oil would have burnt up. It's more like it... dried out and just cracked or something, but Teflon doesn't do that. Where's this stuff on?"
  6654. > "The..."
  6655. > Leaning back in, Cog frowns.
  6656. > "...oil sump? Yeah, the oil sump outlet line."
  6657. "Well, I guess that's where all our oil went. Can-"
  6658. > You were about to ask if it can be fixed, but then think better of it.
  6659. > Of course that was the question on everyone's mind already.
  6660. > A second too late there, Spitfire.
  6661. > Alicia grumbles softly, trying to get around the engine housing to really look at it.
  6662. > "Cog, can you - can you see if you can get this screwdriver down there, scrape some more off? If you can do that, then I'll go get steel wool. And a replacement pipe connection; there should be some in the back."
  6663. > "Shouldn't be a problem, yeah. You go do that, I can get this fixed up."
  6664. > With his horn lit, Cog sets straight to work; Alicia actually smiles, then with a cautious touch gives him a nervous-but-honest pat on the back.
  6665. > "I, uh. Okay. I'll be right back."
  6666. "Hey, Soarin. Go lend her a hoof, would you? Kalendae and I can watch over him."
  6667.  
  6668. > A dim suspicion is starting to form in the back of your head.
  6669. > You really, really don't want to think it's true, but...
  6670.  
  6671. --------
  6672.  
  6673. > Nearly three hours later, Cog Whirl and Alicia slip back into the lower-deck cabin - both covered in the black and brown smudges of grease and with wild hair.
  6674. > From her pocket Alicia deposits a handful of the blackened gunk on the table.
  6675. > Everyone crowds around it; the substance might once have been a lime green, but was now charred to unrecognizability.
  6676. > The smell is sickening.
  6677. > "Well, we found out why all the oil came out of the engine sump connection. Namely, there was no engine sump connection. The whole collar linking it to the oil line had been taken off; whatever this stuff is was all that was holding it in place. When it dried out, some of it got into the sump and clogged up the strainer."
  6678. > Everyone else had already been sitting around the table already; from the moment she spoke Alicia had the entire floor.
  6679. > "Good news is, we were able to scrape it off and just thread a proper connection back on. Better news is, not that much oil got out and the engine will still run."
  6680. > The unspoken last part hangs in the air.
  6681. "I'll ask it. What's the bad news?"
  6682. > "I want to check the other engines. Make sure they're all okay. That'll take through sundown, and then we'll have to take off at night..."
  6683. > "What I want to know..."
  6684. > Renaud rumbles softly, a finger stroking his lined cheek.
  6685. > "...what I want to know is, what idiot technician thought it would be a good idea to just glue in an oil line connection. They've been working on these engines for years!"
  6686. > A long and heavy silence follows.
  6687. > You nicker, tail lashing.
  6688. "Okay, I'll say it because no one else is. This smells like sabotage."
  6689. > The word descends on the crew like a heavy blanket of freezing rain.
  6690. > Sabotage.
  6691. > His face hard and lips pressed into a thin line, Cog Whirl steps up.
  6692. > "Are you telling me, Spitfire, that someone sabotaged one of my engines?"
  6693.  
  6694. > "Cog-"
  6695. > "-making accusations without knowing it-"
  6696. > "-omeone had to bring it up, even if-"
  6697. > "-ENOUGH!"
  6698. > Rarely have you heard Renaud raise his voice, but the bear of a man has quite the pair of lungs on him.
  6699. > When he looks at you, though, there's a gleam in his eyes that says he's thinking the same thing.
  6700. > "Spitfire, explain."
  6701. "Look. I don't really know much about engines. But the sense I'm getting is someone with even just the most basic understanding of them would never do this. Am I right, Alicia?"
  6702. > Slowly she nods.
  6703. > "Not a chance. You don't just glue engine bits together."
  6704. "So. I'm accusing nobody right now. No human, and no pony. But if you did stick that stuff on, it has to be for some other reason than ‘it was fast’. Again, I don’t get engines. But I know when something stinks."
  6705. > Off to the side, Gerard stirs on his bunk.
  6706. > "There is someone missing from this table, though."
  6707. > Logic Gate snarls, turning to him with ears pinned back.
  6708. > "You are not accusing Bell Curve of sabotaging this!"
  6709. > "I'm just saying, the pony is a technician. He suddenly makes a run - a jump, even - without any warning, and now this? What else might that pony have done?"
  6710. > You want to shut him down.
  6711. > Want to say that's impossible, he should stop making baseless accusations.
  6712. > But...
  6713. > There's a point.
  6714. > Rather than pushing it further, however, Gerard simply looks to Alicia.
  6715. > "You can repair the engines. And Thomas, the - equipment is still secure, yes?"
  6716. > "Uh, n-nothing about this should have affected it, yeah."
  6717. > "Then I suggest we return to the Scatturlas. If this is Bell Curve's doing, he cannot do more. Alicia, you and Cog check the engines. We will endure. If - I am not out of place suggesting this?"
  6718. > He looks around the cabin, and so do you.
  6719. > Slowly, heads start to nod.
  6720. > Thomas stands, pulling his hands from his pockets.
  6721. > "I'll - I'll go check the payload again. I just can't believe Bell Curve would..."
  6722.  
  6723. > He wanders away, muttering under his breath.
  6724. > Logic Gate goes with him, also looking downcast - the poor mare.
  6725. > You, however, do not follow.
  6726. > Instead you gather up Kalendae and Soarin, and head out the open hatch again.
  6727. > The tail stabilizers are a perfect place to perch while you talk in a low voice:
  6728. "Something about this really doesn't sit right with me. Bell Curve, this sabotage, the way everything isn't going right... I can feel that there's something happening. But I just can't tell what."
  6729. > Kalendae nods, baring her teeth in a low hiss.
  6730. > "I concur, My Captain. We are surrounded by lies - but whose?"
  6731. "I was hoping you'd have some idea. Just... keep an eye out. Especially on Cog Whirl. I'll watch Alicia. If someone tried to sabotage our engines once, I really think they might go after the ones who fix them next."
  6732. > "Of course, My Captain."
  6733. "Soarin?"
  6734. > The stallion lifts a hindleg to scratch his ear.
  6735. > "Just... Gerard isn't up here with us."
  6736. "Yeah, I..."
  6737. > Don't trust him?
  6738. > Gerard was abrasive, but sabotaging the mission...?
  6739. > Could a griffon hate ponies so much he might try to make it fail, just because it would lead to further human-pony cooperation?
  6740. > You somehow doubted that; Gerard had been absolutely clear that he served the interests of Gregory Whitworth.
  6741. > Unless Whitworth wanted this to fail for some reason too.
  6742. > He had dropped the business with the collars on you at the last second, after all.
  6743. > Bah.
  6744. > No sense running around and around in your head, seeing Nightmare Moon in every shadow and Tirek's claws in every sudden movement.
  6745. > You're better than that.
  6746. "Gerard's just thinking a bit too much about Whitworth's interests, that's all."
  6747. > "Heh, true."
  6748. > Kalendae drifts off first; Soarin lingers behind to nuzzle your cheek.
  6749.  
  6750. > "If not Gerard... is there anyone else you think you can trust with this?"
  6751. "Anonymous. Anonymous for sure."
  6752. > Soarin squints, his nostrils flared.
  6753. > "Your owner, really?"
  6754. "Why not?"
  6755. > "Just..."
  6756. > Soarin turns his head away, looking out into the water.
  6757. > "...I don't know."
  6758. "Is there something up between you and him?"
  6759. > "Between... I don't know. Something about him is just rubbing me the wrong way, I guess."
  6760. > A wing extends to lay across Soarin's back.
  6761. "If there's a problem, Soarin, let me know..."
  6762. > "Not a problem, just... I don't know why you put so much faith into him alone."
  6763. > Your eyebrows rise, head taking a questioning tilt.
  6764. "I'm... I'm sorry, did you miss the part where he and I had to settle our differences and put each others' lives in our hooves?"
  6765. > "I'm not deaf, Spitfire."
  6766. > Soarin rolls his eyes hard, huffing.
  6767. > "I'm just.. why him? Why not Renaud, who's never owned a slave? Or hell, Thomas seems to be pretty much on our side."
  6768. "Because it's not about us-versus-them, Soarin. It's about who I believe won't spill out all of this... and among everyone here, Anonymous is really the first one I can point to. What's gotten into you?"
  6769. > "Ugh, I don't know, I guess I just..."
  6770. > Pausing again, Soarin reaches out and brushes your cheek with his muzzle - hot air puffing out of his nostrils across your coat.
  6771. > "...I'm just wondering if he really cares about you, or if he's just like the ones I was with - only thinking about you as something they can use."
  6772. "I'm pretty sure it's not that, Soarin."
  6773. > "Are you sure, Spitfire? Really, really sure? Or are you just so close with him you don't see it?"
  6774. > One eyebrow rises up as your tail flicks.
  6775. "Just how close do you think I am?"
  6776. > "He knows your 'scritch spot'. And you let him use that on you."
  6777. > Color rises to your cheeks, forcing you to break his gaze.
  6778. "Oh. You, uh. You saw that, huh?"
  6779. > "Yeah, I did."
  6780. > Nickering gently, Soarin leans in to nuzzle you once again.
  6781.  
  6782. > "Far as I knew, only I and your mother knew that one."
  6783. "And Fleetfoot, remember? She found out when she was helping me get worked down after a show. You always used to tease me about two mares having fun."
  6784. > "...and Fleetfoot too. But we were all your team. Your family. He's..."
  6785. "Is that a little bit of jealousy I'm hearing?"
  6786. > He ducks his head, but instead goes to press it in against your barrel.
  6787. > "Maybe."
  6788. > Now it is your turn to nuzzle in against Soarin.
  6789. "Yeah, well... I'm sorry."
  6790. > He hooks his neck around yours, pulling your close against him.
  6791. > "I miss being able to stay close to you, Spitfire. I know we couldn't ever all the time, but we still could."
  6792. "I miss it all too. Even though I was a real captain, things were simpler in some ways then."
  6793. > Brushing your muzzle through his mane again - somehow, still managing to vaguely smell of baked goods - you pull back.
  6794. "But let's stay focused this time. Yeah, he's my owner, yeah. But in this case... with this information, I have to trust him. Can you give me that much, at least?"
  6795. > "I... I guess so."
  6796. > Finding time to explain the situation to Anonymous was a bit trickier; that ended up having to wait until you could trap him in the lower-deck frontal cabin and close the door.
  6797. > But if there's anyone who can help you...
  6798. > He listens with patience and understanding, but when you're done all he can do is sigh.
  6799. > "Don't know what to tell you, Spitfire. Everyone here seems pretty much the same as when I first met them. Nobody's, like, sweating bullets when we brought the whole thing up, you know?"
  6800. "Yeah. But you can't tell me something isn't wrong."
  6801. > "No, I can't."
  6802. > His hand slips around your head, fingers brushing up and down along your neck.
  6803. > That makes you tense - Soarin’s words ringing in your mind - though you get the sense it's as much to benefit Anonymous’ mind as for you.
  6804. > "I'll keep an eye out too, when I can. Anywhere in specific you want me looking?"
  6805. "On Alicia, when I can't be."
  6806.  
  6807. > You repeat your explanation Soarin and Kalendae has received, and he nods in slow understanding.
  6808. > "That... makes sense. But you're really, really suspicious right now. I mean, you're thinking what - someone's going to assassinate her?"
  6809. "I don't know. But we've got to start looking somewhere."
  6810. > Maybe it had been one of them in the first place.
  6811. > No one would doubt one of the flight engineers tinkering with the engines...
  6812. > Ugh, you're doing it again.
  6813. > Nevermind.
  6814. > Back outside, you settle on the plane's wing - helping Alicia and Cog inspect the remaining engines, but mostly so that you could keep an eye on them.
  6815. > Lending a hoof where it was needed - holding tools, holding them steady as the plane bobbed on the water.
  6816. > Mostly just keeping an eye on them.
  6817. > Now that they had gotten past their 'constantly be at each others' throats' phase, the two were really quite endearing to watch together.
  6818. > Bonding over an apparently mutual fascination with the equipment they use.
  6819. > "...I'm telling you, it's easier to use a ratcheting wrench. Solid wrenches just make your hands hurt!"
  6820. > "Hey, you have hands. Why do you even need a ratchet? You can just pull a normal wrench off-"
  6821. > "Yeah, if you want your hands to hurt like hell."
  6822. > "Whatever. I like solid wrenches. I can really feel - feel the metal pushing back on then, you know?"
  6823. > "Yeah. You and your 'cutie marks'."
  6824. > Both of them lift their heads from the bowels of the engine-mount and look at each other.
  6825. > Then they both grin.
  6826. > So do you.
  6827. > Just a few days ago those words would have been spat abrasively at best.
  6828. > More likely snarled in anger.
  6829. > But now?
  6830. > Well, maybe Friendship and Harmony weren't dead after all.
  6831. > "Seriously, though. I have no idea how you humans manage without cutie mark talents. It's like... even when I was completely brain-fried from the drugs, I could still feel this. The metal, like, sings."
  6832.  
  6833. > "I dunno, maybe we're not as deaf to it as you think. I can hear when something's just not right too."
  6834. > "Yeah, well, this one's fine. Move on to the next?"
  6835. > "Absolutely."
  6836. > By the time they get back into the cabin, the sun's last rays have gone.
  6837. > Without the storm, the water is a smooth and glittering - mirroring the star-shot sky above.
  6838. > Thank Celestia for the little noises - the lapping of water against the hull, the anchor line creaking and groaning, the occasional ping and pop of metal - or you might go mad.
  6839. > After so many hours with the engines droning on incessantly or rain pouring down, total silence would have been oppressive.
  6840. > But while the engines were all back together again, the mood was far from upbeat.
  6841. > You can understand that.
  6842. > After all, you'd been the one to suggest it went a little bit beyond mere bad luck.
  6843. > But even among the downcast atmosphere, Thomas just seems especially struck by all that's happened.
  6844. > He sat at the tiny little table that served as the lower-deck kitchenette, staring wordlessly out one of the porthole windows - utterly still except for the occasional twitch of a fingertip.
  6845. > You pause by him, then lift a hoof to rest on his knee.
  6846. "Hey. You going to be alright?"
  6847. > "Eventually, I guess."
  6848. > He grunts softly, looking away from the window at last.
  6849. > "Just - this is all getting to me. It's not the way it was supposed to go at all."
  6850. "Yeah, tell me about it."