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/pj50kb/ Wings of Iron

By ponk
Created: 27th May 2021 09:31:33 PM
15th June 2021 12:22:02 PM

  1. >When Feather showed you the letter she had gotten that morning, you didn’t know what was to come.
  2. >You had already been a weather pony for a few months at that point, working out of New Canterlot and, before that, Cloudhaven.
  3. >If anyone asked, you told them you chose the job because it had fresh air and—more importantly—flexible hours.
  4. >You never had to plan ahead too far, which suited you just fine.
  5. >Doing so always left you feeling sluggish.
  6. >Making you remember the summer you were stuck at home with a broken wing as a filly.
  7. >It’s unnatural.
  8. >Pegasi are meant to soar, not be grounded by their own narrow-mindedness.
  9.  
  10. >What you were less vocal about was the fact that pushing around clouds for a living was a pretty cushy gig.
  11. >A few more years on high-altitude duty and you’d probably be promoted to micromanaging, pushing rain from one local field to the next.
  12. >Might even make supervisor one day.
  13. >You had an idea of how your life would go, is what you’re saying, and you were happy to let it play out.
  14. >What could one measly job offer do to change that?
  15.  
  16. >When Feather came through your door, beaming, that damned letter in her hoof, you knew she would never, ever leave you alone about it.
  17. >You could see it in her eyes.
  18. >Your friend had gotten something stuck in her head again, and she would not let you off the hook.
  19.  
  20.  
  21. ----- MAIL from the edge of the world -----
  22.  
  23.  
  24. >The summer heat refused to let up.
  25. >Say what you will about New Canterlot, but at least it doesn’t get as hot there.
  26. >You’ve been riding the trains west for two days, and the air is still becoming more arid by the minute.
  27. >The landscape is slowly changing from the soft hills you are used to and into something rocky, gray, and dusty.
  28. >Someone said they don’t even have a rainy season out here.
  29. >You still have a hard time believing it, not least because the offer Feather has you chasing is asking for weather ponies.
  30. >What the hell do they need them for in a place like this?
  31. >And why were you stupid enough to come along in the first place?
  32.  
  33. >You decide to fly the rest of the way after Brightfall to save yourself the trouble of having to rent transportations.
  34. >The trains don’t even run this far out.
  35. >At least not anymore.
  36. >They did at one point, as you can tell by the derelict tracks glittering in the sun below, but that was some time ago.
  37. >The early settlers had expanded far and fast, all the way to the coast, but as resources were mined out, they had retracted inland.
  38. >Now the landscape is made up of old quarries and heaps of neutered slag and rock waste dug up by the geo-harvesting machines of old.
  39. >Ponies still live here, but the settlements are few and far between.
  40. >At least flying is a nice change of pace, and the wind on your coat is doing its part to make you forget about the heat.
  41. >Feather couldn’t be more excited.
  42. >Already, she boasts, you were closer to the ocean than your own home.
  43.  
  44.  
  45. >"That should be the place," Feather brings your eyes to the ground on the third day of flying.
  46. >Leave it to her to pinpoint your destination from a hundred meters up after six hours in the air.
  47. >She may have a birdbrain, but it is that of a homing pigeon.
  48. >Your friend ranked first in all the navigational exercises in basic training.
  49. "That can’t be right."
  50. >"Why not?"
  51. "Look at it. It’s just some abandoned structure."
  52. >You wouldn’t even give the shabby little hive of neglected runways and metal shacks a second glance.
  53. "What kind of weather team has a run-down base like this?"
  54. >"Maybe they gotta watch their budget."
  55. "What kind of weather team is located two flight hours from the nearest city in the first place?"
  56. >"Let’s go down."
  57.  
  58. >The air around the base is sweltering, as if the refreshing breeze that carried you here had simply forgotten about it.
  59. >Along with the rest of the world.
  60. >Tufts of weeds and wild flowers have started taking back the tarmac years ago.
  61. >The concrete watchtowers are a strong kick away from crumbling.
  62. >You would have sworn you had the wrong place if it wasn’t for the rusted sign at the gate.
  63. >It’s barely legible anymore, but Feather’s uncanny knack for finding her destination has proven right again.
  64. >This is it.
  65. >Or it had been at some point at least.
  66.  
  67. "You’re absolutely sure of this, right?"
  68. >"Right."
  69. "No way this is one of your weird pranks again?"
  70. >"Nuh-uh."
  71. "Because if you made me travel for a week just to screw with me I’m seriously going to kill you this time."
  72. >"Maybe finding this place is the first step of the selection process!" Feather beams.
  73. "Well," you take another look around, "guess the next is actually coming across somebody."
  74.  
  75. >Slipping past the unsupervised gate, you follow a strand of power cables towards the buildings at the far side of the compound.
  76. "No traffic. Crossing runway 12R," you say to nobody in particular.
  77. >"No traffic," Feather echoes a step behind.
  78. >Even standing in the middle of the airfield, the base-turned-ghost-town is giving you precious little hints to work with.
  79. >No approaching or departing fliers, no stewards shooing you away from the hot zones.
  80. >And you always thought the Cloudhaven strips were quiet.
  81. >Still, you halt and crane your neck as soon as your hooves hit the next bit of tarmac.
  82. "No traffic. Crossing 12L."
  83. >"No traffic."
  84. >You guess the stuff they teach you in basic never really leaves you.
  85.  
  86. >The rusting hut with the words 'Administrations Office' on the door is as empty as the rest of the place.
  87. >"Names?"
  88. >Or maybe not.
  89. >The mare lost behind the stacks and piles of important-looking documents gives you and Feather a few seconds to stop panicking.
  90. >Had she not called out—with about equal portions of disinterest and annoyance—you wouldn’t have noticed her.
  91. >She’s a pegasus and quite a bit older than you.
  92. >"Names?"
  93. >"Li– Light Feather."
  94. "Night springs."
  95. >The mare makes a small gesture with her hoof before going back to work.
  96. >Whatever is hidden in the ocean of maps strewn across her desk is just that much more important.
  97. >"And you’re here for...?"
  98. >"It said there were openings," Feather pulls the letter from her saddlebag, as if it could somehow identify you as more than a pair of outsiders from beyond the compound’s derelict chicken wire. "For the weather intercept squad."
  99. >"On 𝘛𝘦𝘳𝘮𝘪𝘯𝘶𝘴 𝘌𝘴𝘵," the mare retorts.
  100. >"𝘛𝘦𝘳𝘮𝘪𝘯𝘶𝘴…?"
  101. >Feather repeats the word as if to try its taste, forcing the disgruntled analyst away from her task a second time.
  102. >The crow’s feet behind the delicate rims of her reading glasses do little to soften her scowl.
  103.  
  104. >"Where are you fillies from?"
  105. "New… Canterlot?"
  106. >"You’re not military aviators, are you?"
  107. "We’re not, no."
  108. >Light looks like she’s about ready to apologize for the inconvenience of not being someone else.
  109. >"You know where you are, do you not? You know what it says on that letter of yours, right?"
  110. >The mare is giving you her full attention now—if you were uncomfortable before, you’re positively anxious now.
  111. "Light?" you turn to your ditz of a friend in a stage whisper. "What have you gotten us into?"
  112. >"Uhm…"
  113. >Turning the sheet this way and that, Feather searches for something she could have missed.
  114. >She doesn’t find anything.
  115.  
  116. "This… This is the base of operations for a weather crew, right?"
  117. >You decide to just ask.
  118. >There’s no sense in acting like you know what’s going on anymore, seeing as the mare who looks like she has a million more important things to do has already figured you out anyway.
  119. >The least you could do is not waste more of her time by pretending.
  120. >You also decide to hold back on the smack Light has coming to her for now.
  121. >Barely.
  122. >"Not a base in the sense you’re thinking of, Miss Springs. More of a formal outpost. And the crew you’re referring to are the Iron Wings—a forward operating weather team. We send those recruitment slips out every couple of months but I can’t remember the last time we actually got an answer. We usually have to resort to drafting from the military."
  123. >She leans back from her maps, her guarded expression turning into cold suspicion.
  124. >Even Feather seems cautions now.
  125. >"Our actual area of operations is out west."
  126. "'Out west?' We’re way out in the sticks already. Any more west and you’ll be–"
  127. >"On the ocean," the mare cuts you off. "𝘛𝘦𝘳𝘮𝘪𝘯𝘶𝘴 𝘌𝘴𝘵 is a mobile skyfort operating autonomously over the open water. Now… let me see that recruitment letter, if you will."
  128. >"Ow!" Feather rubs the back of her head. "Was that necessary, Night?"
  129.  
  130.  
  131. ----- Parade MARCH -----
  132.  
  133.  
  134. >You didn’t understand what the mare at the derelict air base had told you until months later.
  135. >The scene of that day keeps playing in your head, and you keep wondering where it went wrong.
  136. >You could have just left, it’s not like you signed a contract the moment your hooves touched the runway.
  137. >Maybe it was the way Feather kept talking it up all throughout the trip.
  138. >Even though she herself didn’t know what she was getting into at the time.
  139. >Still, your friend wouldn’t stop gushing about making a difference in a place where it actually mattered.
  140. >Like her sister, who was a successful member of the search-and-rescue team.
  141. >She actually ended up being right.
  142. >Which you would probably find funny if you weren’t at the short end of that particular joke.
  143. >Now, on the day 𝘛𝘦𝘳𝘮𝘪𝘯𝘶𝘴 𝘌𝘴𝘵 makes landfall at Coveguard, the city famous for hugging the ocean cliffs, it’s time for the punchline.
  144. >Light already went down to get herself lost in the festival rampaging through the streets in celebration of the Iron Wings’ arrival, leaving you alone in the hotel room with the noise of the crowd slowly growing from annoying to intolerable.
  145. >She told you to enjoy what is likely your last day on land for a while and to stop sulking.
  146.  
  147. >You’ll sulk as much as you want.
  148. >You don’t care.
  149.  
  150. >It’s not until the roar of an angry giant makes its way through the brickwork that your resolve breaks down.
  151. >The sound is a deep, distorted howl; a brutalized version of an emergency siren amplified to shake windows and reverberate in your stomach.
  152. >Creeping out onto the balcony, the turmoil from the packed streets below immediately washes over you like a hot wind.
  153. >Music is coming from every nook and cranny of the city, bursting out of taverns and alleyways and mixing with the singing and shouting of the crowd.
  154. >The air carries the smell of food and candy along with the subtle scent of black powder from the firecrackers being popped in the courtyards.
  155. >Confetti and party streamers litter the air like swarms of paper insects.
  156. >Street stands are lining the cobblestone walkways all the way from the inner city to the outskirts at the far-away cliffs.
  157. >It seems that every merchant and vendor wants to be a part of the spectacle, as do the streams of residents, travelers, visitors, and onlookers clogging the streets.
  158. >The arrival of the forward operating weather team has the entirety of Coveguard in a state of exemption.
  159. >And over the chatter and noise, the dark form of 𝘛𝘦𝘳𝘮𝘪𝘯𝘶𝘴 𝘌𝘴𝘵 is ponderously hanging at high anchor, casting an artificial eclipse from a few kilometers above the city.
  160.  
  161. >The skyfort could almost be confused with a large storm cloud if it wasn’t for the ominous guard towers and gun encampments dotting the structure like a spiked, oily-black carapace.
  162. >You can’t believe that something so massive is actually capable of flight, and yet the hard proof is right there in the sky, lazily blocking out the sun.
  163. >Hundreds of shutters and pipes are sticking out of its lower half, trailing cloud-vapors and speaking of the city-sized, magic-amped weather factory producing warm air deep within its bowels.
  164. >Every few minutes, the deafening roar from earlier repeats itself, the fort’s sirens and siege horns letting loose and drowning out the festival for long, thundering seconds.
  165. >The cheers of the dazed crowd get more vigorously each time.
  166. >Even at this distance, you can appreciate how massive the mobile base of brick and gunmetal is, and you can’t help but be swept up by the sheer impact it exerts on everything below it.
  167. >For better or worse, the Iron Wings have arrived.
  168.  
  169. >Hundreds of pegasi are swarming the air around 𝘛𝘦𝘳𝘮𝘪𝘯𝘶𝘴 𝘌𝘴𝘵 like insects around a hive, with a steady stream making their way down towards the city.
  170. >Like daring acrobats, the commuters simply drop towards the surface, only bothering to slow their descent by the time they’re almost swallowed by the maze of towers and high roofs.
  171. >The whole display feels surreal, like a well-choreographed theater routine featuring hundreds of skillful dancers.
  172. >Most are making landfall in the lower parts of Coveguard, where the market and entertainment districts are—making the most of their short time on dry land, no doubt—but some seem to have other things to do.
  173. >The city’s own aviator squads are organizing and guiding the arrivals, leading flight teams towards warehouses and barracks.
  174. >You can make out loaders on their way back up, carrying boxes and supply crates and even the occasional non-pegasus passenger in harnesses stretched between multiple flyers.
  175. >It occurs to you that you will have to make climb, too, making you wonder just how much shit you would have to take if you were to find Light and told her you wouldn’t be going after all.
  176. >You’re already getting winded just thinking about the height.
  177.  
  178.  
  179. >"Hey! You on the balcony!"
  180. >A pegasus mare is flying towards you from up high, her wings cutting the air as she drops altitude.
  181. >She lands on the edge of the balcony a few moments later.
  182. >Her coat is a dark, muddy gray that transitions into a soft yellow towards the tips of her hooves and wings.
  183. >Her mane is short and golden blonde.
  184. >She has a pair of saddlebags bearing the Iron Wings insignia secured with straps around her barrel.
  185. >Her cutie mark is a white, five-pointed star on a dark blue circle, flanked by white and red stripes on both sides.
  186. >Folding her wings on her back, she cracks a toothy grin.
  187. >"Yo! I’m s’posed to pick up a pair of recruits," she greets with a clipped accent you can’t place. "The Princeps was afraid they were gonna bolt again so they gave me the address of the hotel. You know a Light Feather or Night Springs?"
  188. >You nod wordlessly after a moment of hesitation you’re not particularly proud of.
  189. >"Nice! Don’t try to hide it now, ’s written all over your face! I’m looking for you, aren’t I?"
  190. "I’m Night Springs," you admit after another pause.
  191. >"Great! Hope you didn’t wait too long. I woulda been down sooner but the flight deck’s a fucking mess right now. All the downward traffic, y’know? Took forever till I got drop permission."
  192. "It’s fine," you tell her before mumbling your thanks for going through the trouble in the first place.
  193. >"Nah, don’t sweat it", she waves you off. "Like I said, ’s more for our sake than yours. Freshwings have a habit for turning tail as soon as they see the base for some reason."
  194. >The mare nods towards 𝘛𝘦𝘳𝘮𝘪𝘯𝘶𝘴 𝘌𝘴𝘵 hanging in the air behind her like a giant blemish in the azure background.
  195. >"We also kinda wanna make sure you get up okay. ’S your first time after all and there’s some protocols to follow. Name’s Tomcat by the way. Moderatus with the Iron Wings. Nice ta meetcha."
  196. >You tell her your name, realizing you already told her a second ago.
  197. >Tomcat is accommodating enough to just continue smiling while you mentally slap yourself.
  198. >"Nice ta meetcha, Night Springs," she reiterates. "Glad I found you. Although, gotta say…"
  199. >She takes a wobbly step away from the edge of the balcony.
  200. >"I may need a little bit before finding my land legs again, y’know? It’s been a while."
  201.  
  202. >You offer a hoof to the unsteady mare, which she accepts by leaning onto you with a quick sidestep.
  203. >Her expression is betraying her nausea.
  204. >"So… so you’re not military, huh?" Tomcat asks while you gently let her down. "How’d you get roped into this deal then?"
  205. "Chose the wrong kind of friend, I guess."
  206. >"Right," Tomcat nods, immediately regretting the motion, "I know whatcha mean! But that’s what friends are, no? Where’s the other one anyway? S’posed to be two of you. Don’t tell me she ran and left you with the bill."
  207. "She went to check out the festival, actually."
  208. >"No chance of her ducking out?"
  209. "Of all the things you got to watch out for with Feather, her leaving you hanging isn’t one of them. Plus, this whole thing was her idea. She’s way too excited to be scared."
  210. >"Been together for a while, huh?"
  211. "We’ve only been weather ponies for a bit though. Mostly just done basic stuff so far."
  212. >"Eh, you’ll learn quick enough. Still, pretty hardcore to make the step onto 𝘛𝘦𝘳𝘮𝘪𝘯𝘶𝘴. The Princeps wants to have a word with the two of ya later. She’s pretty impressed, but don’t tell her I told you, yeah?"
  213. >Tomcat gives you a punch in the leg.
  214. >"And don’t let it getta ya head neither!"
  215.  
  216. "Anything I need to watch out for?"
  217. >"Not really. I mean she’s got her ways an’ all but there’s not much you can do to trip her up."
  218. >Tomcat shakes her head to herself.
  219. >"Guess she’s seen it all already. You wouldn’t believe: she’s been commanding 𝘛𝘦𝘳𝘮𝘪𝘯𝘶𝘴 for more’n sixty years now."
  220. >The surprise must have been clear on your face, the way the Iron Wing is laughing.
  221. >"Don’t go thinking of some old mare now, y’hear? Doesn’t look a day older than you and me!"
  222. "That can’t be true! How?"
  223. >"They say she used to be a Knight. ’S what I heard at least. Back when the Knights were a thing still–"
  224. >The Moderatus pauses for a moment.
  225. >"You know about the Knights, yeah?"
  226. >You don’t think there’s a pony alive who doesn’t.
  227. >"Well, back when they were still around, she used to be one. Back when there were six of ’em. ’S what I heard," Tomcat nods as if to confirm her own thoughts.
  228. "I guess I’ll have to take your word for it."
  229. >"Ha!" the mare gives you another slap before getting up.
  230. >She looks a bit queasy still, but it seems she’s stable on her feet for now.
  231. >"Let’s go find that friend of yours."
  232.  
  233.  
  234. ----- Sinking SUN -----
  235.  
  236.  
  237. >It takes the better part of four hours to find Light, mostly because you are being dragged from booth to booth by an excited Tomcat instead of actually searching.
  238. >Even though the festival is nothing out of the ordinary—especially compared to the week-long carnivals you’re used to from New Canterlot—the Moderatus is happy like a little filly, roaming the attractions and food stands, and loudly flagging down vendors to haggle.
  239. >It’s probably been a while since she got to enjoy something like this.
  240. >In the time between leaving the hotel and spotting Feather with her muzzle in a bag of popcorn, Tomcat managed to buy, among other things, insignia pins of Coveguard’s guard and Adeptus Magia chapters, a miniature 𝘛𝘦𝘳𝘮𝘪𝘯𝘶𝘴 𝘌𝘴𝘵 replica, a souvenir map, several postcards, three servings of cotton candy, and a stuffed doll looking suspiciously like an alicorn princess with interchangeable jewelry.
  241. >You yourself ate a single small bag of candy and are already feeling sick from the sweetness.
  242. >The fact that you’re currently making the climb up to the fortress doesn’t help either.
  243.  
  244. >"Miss Tomcat," Feather points towards the bulking saddlebags of the mare flying next to her, shouting over the high-altitude wind, "it looks like you bought a lot of stuff. Are there that few ways to spend money up there?"
  245. >"Mementos," the Iron Wing grins. "Could be months before we make landfall again and it might not even be near a big city. You gotta learn how to take these moments with you and make them last a while."
  246. >Feather looks back down to the colorful lights filling the streets and the rooftops glinting in the evening sun, prompting Tomcat to adjust her angle and lightly bump into her.
  247. >"Don’t worry, you can have some of my stuff! I gotta music box that’ll kick your ass! Eyes up now!"
  248.  
  249. >You’re already close enough to see the details of the titanic fort.
  250. >Its massive bulk rests on a foundation of reinforced steel.
  251. >Scorch marks and scratches the length of full-grown dragons cover the metal like scar tissue, telling stories of the past you don’t have the will to imagine.
  252. >The damage is displayed proudly, like armor, a monument to the might of the Iron wings and the importance of their duty.
  253. >𝘛𝘦𝘳𝘮𝘪𝘯𝘶𝘴 𝘌𝘴𝘵 has seen things most ponies never will, and so far, it has not been found wanting.
  254.  
  255. >Hundreds of small pilot drones buzz around the dark spires and arcs, busily flashing ultra-bright machine-code telemetry back and forth.
  256. >Rows of Cerberus Pattern Autocannons and Solaris Turbolasers are hungrily waiting for targeting solutions.
  257. >You can see some of them tracking your movement even from this distance.
  258. "Why’s it got so many guns? I mean, we’re going out to the ocean to break up storms and stuff before they become a problem for the mainland, right? How do you need weapons for that?"
  259. >"Is that what it says in those promotional flyers they give ya now?" Tomcat shakes her head. "That all we do is clear up the weather for the land teams? Don’t get me wrong, we do, but there’s much more happening out there."
  260. >"Like what?" Feather asks before you can decide if you want to hear the answer.
  261. >"Ever see a Leviathan? Big serpent fuckers that live out in the deep parts. They can make their own hurricanes if they decide to! Trust me, you don’t wanna come across one of those guys without some firepower at ya back."
  262. >The look on your friend’s face tells you there is no danger of her digging deeper with another question.
  263. >"Ah, hold up for a minute," Tomcat stops her ascent.
  264. >You’re not far below the skyfort now.
  265. >"Gotta get a check."
  266. >As if on cue, a drone is dropping down under the watchful gaze of the auto-tracking cannons, blinking warily while circling the three pegasi who stumbled into its patrol zone.
  267. >"Blue Diamond. Blue Diamond," your guide calls out what you suspect is some sort of passphrase.
  268. >The drone answers by flashing a complex series of red and blue lights.
  269. >"Moderatus Tomcat bringing in two recruits."
  270. >The drone blinks a few more cycles of binary nonsense before flying off as quickly as it came.
  271. >The leery cannons that had been watching you pull their barrels away to search for more important targets.
  272. >"Alright, last stretch now."
  273. >Tomcat is unfazed by the whole procedure.
  274. >Apparently, this is how you end up after a while in this job: casual in the face of the very real possibility of being blown out of the sky for messing up a countersign.
  275.  
  276.  
  277. >"Princeps! I got the freshwings! Didn’t even have to tie anyone up this time."
  278. >The bridge of 𝘛𝘦𝘳𝘮𝘪𝘯𝘶𝘴 𝘌𝘴𝘵 is filled with command consoles, workstations, and monitors displaying slow rivers of complex data feeds.
  279. >It smells of metal and warm plastic, and the subtle hum of running electronics fills the air.
  280. >Tables are covered in landscapes of maps and charts, dotted with personal data-slates and forgotten coffee cups.
  281. >The far wall is a single pane of heavy-duty glass, opening the view onto the ocean waves playing with the last bit of sunshine.
  282.  
  283. >A few ponies are clustered around some of the screens, quietly discussing.
  284. >There is a turned head here and there to get a glance at the newbies Tomcat dragged in but most have more important things to attend to.
  285. >Only one mare seems to be interested: A pegasus with a blue coat and a long, multicolored mane and tail.
  286. >Her cutie mark is a lightning bolt coming out of a cloud, and it looks like a pair of wings has been tattooed around it.
  287. >The mare’s actual wings—you have to take a second and even a third look—are made of metal.
  288. >"These are Night Springs and Light Feather, Skip," Tomcat introduces, pointing at the two of you in turn. "Recruits, this is Princeps Rainbow Dash of the Iron Wings Forward Operating Weather Team."
  289. >"Welcome aboard," the mare greets. "Good to have you! Just wait a few and I’ll be right with you."
  290. >"I’ll just leave theme here then, if that’s alright. Gotta get to storage and make sure they’re putting away the HE shells properly!" the Moderatus explains.
  291. >Princeps Dash waves her off, already back to discussing something or other over the glow of the display stations.
  292. >Tomcat turns to you.
  293. >"Just have someone escort you to the crew quarters afterwards. They’ll take care of ya."
  294. "Thanks, Tomcat."
  295. >"S’fine. And I gotta chance to check out the festival! Skipper’s probably gonna ask you how you wound up here. Just tell her straight-out. She doesn’t like being lied to. Then again, who does?"
  296.  
  297. >She leaves you and Feather alone to watch the mare with the metal wings continue to instruct her officers.
  298. >You told your friend what Tomcat said about the Princeps being here for quite some time, although you’re almost certain that she was pulling your leg by now.
  299. >For what it’s worth, you would have guessed Rainbow Dash’s age to be close to your own, maybe a few years older.
  300. >Unusual mane color aside, she could be your older sister.
  301. >Even with all the magic in the world, there is no way she is as old as you were led to believe.
  302. >Is there?
  303.  
  304. >"How do you think she got those wings?" Light whispers.
  305. "Don’t know. But look," you discreetly point towards a stallion bent over one of the tables, "he’s got one, too."
  306. >"And that one has a mechanized leg. A lot of them have something, actually."
  307. "Tomcat?"
  308. >"I didn’t see anything. If she did, it was subtle."
  309. "Or well hidden."
  310. >"Is this such a dangerous job?"
  311. "I hope not. And even if it was, even the military doesn’t give out prostheses and augmentations like this. It must cost a small fortune."
  312. >"Well, if the Princeps is a former Knight–"
  313. "She’s not."
  314. >"–but if she is, she’d probably be set for life, wouldn’t she?"
  315.  
  316. >"She can also hear pretty well!"
  317. >You didn’t notice that Dash had finished her work and is coming over.
  318. "Shit."
  319. >"What are you talking about?" she asks sheepishly, making a show of unfolding her artificial wings in a fake stretch.
  320. "Nothing, Princeps!"
  321. >"Did you used to be a Knight, Princeps?"
  322. >This mare will be the end of you.
  323. >Fortunately, Dash seems to be more amused than angry.
  324. >"Not even a single day on board and you’re already into the rumors like the rest of them," she scoffs. "Wait till you hear the one about the first mate’s unrequited love interest!"
  325. >"So you weren’t a Knight?" Feather doesn’t let up, earning herself a grin laced with something else you can’t quite put your hoof on.
  326. >"You’ll just have to believe what you choose to believe, Recruit. Any other questions? Now might be the best time to get ‘em off your chest."
  327.  
  328. "What happened to your wings?"
  329. >Your curiosity gets to better of you.
  330. >"What, these?" Princeps Dash stretches her metal extremities again, revealing an intricate, razor-sharp assembly of bluish steel.
  331. >They’re easily twice the size of regular wings, made from hundreds of artificial feathers.
  332. >Serial numbers are etched into the shiny surfaces alongside a complex network of codes, symbols, and tiny runic inscriptions.
  333. >A myriad of servo motors is working in unison, translating every movement into waves of angle and pitch adjustments.
  334. >Tiny pistons and screws peek out from countersunk holes here and there, no doubt for precise tuning operations that take no less than a dozen tech priests to properly conduct.
  335. >"Pretty awesome, huh?"
  336. >Not the first expression coming to mind but sure, you’ll settle for awesome.
  337. >"Figured there’s only so much you can do without augs so I went and got them upgraded. Got rid of my flesh wings and switched to these."
  338. >She wiggles her mech-feathers again for emphasis, changing their orientation to the soft sound of clicking metal.
  339. >The words 'AVERNII HIGH-PRECISION AVIATION SYSTEM' are stenciled along the main limbs, similar to the inscription you would see on a gun slide, with the symbol of a skull inside a mechanical cog proudly sitting next to them.
  340. "You voluntarily gave up your wings? That’s pretty…"
  341. >You trail off, not sure how to finish the sentence.
  342. >"Pretty hardcore, right?" the mare boasts. "Cried like a bitch, too, after they cut them off. But they started grafting the new ones a few weeks later. By the time I could actually start to control them, I was more or less over it."
  343. "Hardcore," you mumble.
  344. >"Now I’ve got twice the speed and three times the altitude. They’re blast- and heat-resistant, and they’re sharp as fuck too, so I can cut anything from trees to plate metal if I get fast enough. Maintenance can be a pain but I got teams for that now that I’m in charge."
  345.  
  346. >"What about the two of you?" Dash musters you, "Any hidden augs? I heard there were some shops in New Canterlot that install hard-to-detect stuff."
  347. >She creeps closer, poking one of Feather’s legs.
  348. >"I’d really like to see it someday."
  349. >"N-nothing to see here, Ma’am," Light manages to mumble, squirming away.
  350. >"Shame. Just a regular fleshbag, huh?"
  351. >The Princeps’ eyes widen for a second.
  352. >"No offense, alright?" she gives your friend a hearty slap, nearly making her lose her balance. "Just nice to see a pony accept the limits of her own body, you know? The Iron Wings have long realized the superiority of metal over muscles."
  353. "We think we’ll just stick with what we have for now."
  354. >"Well, if you ever change your mind, don’t hesitate to ask. There are surgical teams and Biomagi on standby ‘round the clock."
  355. >Hardcore, indeed.
  356.  
  357.  
  358. ----- SET to blow -----
  359.  
  360.  
  361. >The mission that would prove Feather right about making a difference came about three months after you first headed out to the ocean.
  362. >And it came without warning.
  363.  
  364. >You remember waking to the screams of the emergency klaxons and the frenzied clatter of hooves outside your door.
  365. >Garbled vox instructions echoed through the hallways like the wails of upset spirits.
  366. >The yells from the senior Adepts were simply lost under the noise of the entirety of 𝘛𝘦𝘳𝘮𝘪𝘯𝘶𝘴 𝘌𝘴𝘵 being activated.
  367. >An entire regiment of weather ponies had been roused from sleep, crowds of chattering pegasi throwing on their uniforms and making their way to the assembly points.
  368. >It felt like the end of the world had been announced with minutes to spare.
  369.  
  370.  
  371. >You find Feather staring at the emergency monitors in one of the slow-moving elevators carrying troops up to the flight deck.
  372. >Amber-bright data-feeds rush past, straining under the heavy workload and spewing calculations and atmospheric readings too fast for the naked eye to follow.
  373. >The ancient Lexico Arcanus is streamed from his chambers deep within the skyfort, explaining that the midnight storm had surprised the prognosticians.
  374. >A conclusive reason was yet to be determined.
  375. "What do you think is going on?"
  376. >"I heard someone say it’s a freak hurricane or something like that. Even the senior officers are uneasy," Light points to the crowd of ponies nervously shifting while waiting for the elevator doors to open. "I just hope it’s not a Leviathan," she shudders.
  377.  
  378. >The panic is worse out on the airfield.
  379. >Supervisors are shouting over the wailing sirens; intercept teams are scurrying through their pre-flight routines.
  380. >Gaggles of flight controllers are busy keeping the crowds away from the chemiluminescent runway markings, guiding waves of pegasi up and away with heavy-duty glow sticks.
  381. >You’ve never seen all of the giant overhead floodlights turned on at the same time, their cyclopean lenses trailing steam from evaporating the rain.
  382. >Even though it’s the middle of the night, the entire operations platform is day-bright, sparing you the view of the pure black wall of thunderclouds pushing in from the horizon.
  383. >The hum of powerful generators is electrifying the air.
  384. >The rain is ice on your coat, already numbing the tips of your hooves.
  385. >Everywhere you look, ponies are busy getting instructed, equipped, and sent on their way.
  386. >It is the biggest sortie you have ever witnessed.
  387. >A full mobilization.
  388.  
  389. >Your name is being shouted in the turmoil somewhere, the familiar syllables making you snap to attention and focus on the deployment officer.
  390. >High-altitude reconnaissance, is what you manage to understand from the stallion with the mechanized back legs.
  391. >Your job will be to track macro patterns and inform the clearing squads where to concentrate their efforts.
  392. >Feather is to drop down and keep an eye on the ocean waves, making sure no surprises sneak up on you from that direction.
  393.  
  394. >You can feel your heart beating like crazy.
  395. >You’re scared of course, but there is something else mixed in there.
  396. >Something sharper, something honing your senses, something making your muscles twitch in anticipation.
  397. >This is it.
  398. >After months of training and practice drills, this is your chance to make it all worthwhile.
  399. >To prove that you aren’t just getting dragged along.
  400. >That you’re an Iron Wing.
  401.  
  402. >"Springs! Feather!"
  403. >You’re about to make your way to the runway when Tomcat waves you over through the pelting rain.
  404. >"Did you get your orders yet?"
  405. "We were just about to move out."
  406. >"You might be re-tasked to help with the cloudkicking soon. I just came from the bridge and the Skipper’s about to change strategies. This thing’s gonna kick our ass if we don’t get a handle on that storm front quickly."
  407. "What’s happening out there, Tomcat?"
  408. >"Dunno. Never seen anything like it," the Moderatus shakes her head. "Storms this big don’t just appear out of nowhere. Radar was clear a couple hours ago but now the clouds won’t stop coming."
  409. >"Is it a…" Light hesitates for a second. "…Leviathan?"
  410. >"Don’t worry, kiddo," Tomcat laughs. "We woulda found that out by now!"
  411. "What are we going to do?"
  412. >"You let the Princeps and the Officers do their work while focusing on yours. Go do what you’re ordered and then help clear the clouds before they can accumulate and become real assholes, clear?"
  413. >You nod.
  414. >"Good, because–"
  415. >Tomcat is interrupted by the shrill whistle of a siren, followed by the sound of the vox broadcasting system crackling to life.
  416. >The entire deck freezes as if an invisible switch had been flicked somewhere.
  417. >Two hundred soaking pegasi fall silent.
  418.  
  419. >"Engine! Engine!" a speaker-corrupted voice shouts over the airfield. "Proximity warning! Runaway engine off the starboard bow!"
  420. >Nobody dares to make a move for a few more seconds before everything dissolves into chaos.
  421.  
  422. >"Shit!" Tomcat spits. "Come with me!"
  423. "Aren’t we supposed to help–"
  424. >"Forget that!"
  425. >"What was that?" Feather asks while fighting to stay close to the Moderatus working her way through the crowd. "What’s an engine?"
  426. >"We have to see the skipper! She’s gonna have to change the plan again and with most of the base already deployed ’s gonna be tricky. We need all the hooves we can get."
  427. "Tomcat, what’s an engine?"
  428. >"A weather engine, alright?" the mare explains, ushering you into the elevator. "Giant machines roaming the ocean. Remnants of the old time! Nobody knows how they work anymore but they somehow prevent the worst calamities from happening."
  429. >She gives you a portentous look.
  430. >"Unless they don’t! We try to keep taps on ‘em but they move around. We just let ‘em go about their business mostly, but every once in a while something goes wrong."
  431. "What happens then?"
  432. >"Remember that storm surge a few years back smashing up all those cities along the shoreline?"
  433.  
  434.  
  435. >"How’s it looking, Skipper?"
  436. >The bridge feels different from the last time you were on it.
  437. >The soft hum of electronics has grown into a disturbing buzz of stressed computing clusters and struggling data loaders.
  438. >The quietly vigilant operators have been replaced with two dozen chattering ponies.
  439. >"The enginseers say it might be a Harmony Pattern," Princeps Dash shouts over the commotion. "Maybe a tail-end Starswirl."
  440. >"How’s it doing?"
  441. >"Not good," a mare sitting at one of the control stations answers without leaving the displays flashing in front of her out of sight. "Surface temps are up to twelve hundred degrees and it keeps churning out water and superheated air. We’re going to have a hurricane on our hoofs."
  442. >"Seismic readback is bad also," a stallion adds. "The last quake was a 3.5 and it keeps going up."
  443. >The Princeps whistles sharply, making the officers fall silent.
  444.  
  445. >"We’ll get on top of it. No sense in having this thing blow up in our faces. Navigator Zinc: full ahead, full climb!"
  446. >"Full ahead, full climb," a mare repeats, typing away on her console to the sound of bright confirmation chimes.
  447. >A series of low rumbles shakes the walls as the far-away power plants of the skyfort’s drive system spool up.
  448. >"Silversight, prep the factory for a full torrent! We’ll cool it down by force. It’s already coming down pretty hard out there so that helps us."
  449. >"Aye, Princeps."
  450. >"Tomcat, how many wings are deployed?"
  451. >"About three quarters of our flyers, Skip. Want me to call ‘em back for re-tasking?"
  452. >Dash thinks for a moment.
  453. >"Keep them out! We didn’t know what this was before but the parameters haven’t changed. We still need to get ahead of that thunderstorm if want any chance of saving the engine."
  454.  
  455. >Tomcat is about to say something when a mare sitting at one of the outer stations cuts her off.
  456. >Her coat is a dark, muddy red.
  457. >Her eyes shine with a dull green, and you can see a second later that they have been fully replaced by artificial optics.
  458. >She is hooked into her console through a series of bionic plugs running down her spine.
  459. >"Princeps, the enginseers report a fluctuation in the God-Machine’s anti-magic shields," she says with a mechanical, vox-ruined voice. "It has been calculated as the most likely cause for the present state of malfunction-slash-disruption. Recommendation: It is believed breaching the Machine’s shields will initiate a reset that allows it to heal."
  460. >The strange mare goes quiet again, staring at nothing in particular through her harsh, unblinking eyes.
  461. >The gaze of two dozen ponies shifts from her to the Princeps.
  462.  
  463. >Tomcat is the first to speak.
  464. >"Can we pop the shields?"
  465. >"I don’t think we can," Dash answers, getting a few nods of agreement from the officers. "Not without a few hundred unicorns at least."
  466. >"What about the turbolasers?"
  467. >"They’ll just get soaked up. This is old magic, Moderatus. It’ll take more than a few pokes to get it to submit."
  468. >An idea pops into your head, and you speak aloud before realizing it.
  469. "Are the engine’s shields the same as modern anti-magicals? Like those on atmospheric survey stations?"
  470. >"Similar enough," Tomcat nods. "Far as we know."
  471. "Those are susceptible to overcharge, right? They used to go down all the time during storms back in New Canterlot."
  472. >Funnily enough, Feather is the first to see where you are going.
  473. >"The thunderclouds! There’s enough static floating around out there to power a city! If we push enough clouds onto the shields they’ll have no choice but to fizzle out!"
  474. >"We can’t get that close, kiddo," Princeps Dash wiggles her mech-wings. "The electric fields on those things will tear us to ribbons."
  475. "Not us!"
  476. >Dash musters you.
  477. "We’re not augmented!"
  478. >Your mouth is faster than your brain again.
  479. "We can do it!"
  480. >There is another moment of silence—long enough for you to realize what you said—before the Princeps addresses her Moderatus again.
  481. >"You’re a purist, too, right?"
  482. >"Yes, Princeps."
  483. >"Including you, how many fleshbags do we have left untasked?"
  484. >"Maybe just enough!"
  485.  
  486.  
  487. ----- To break a WAVE -----
  488.  
  489.  
  490. >"It’s gonna be tricky," Tomcat shouts over the wind rushing up from below.
  491. >You’re at the edge of the flight deck, with nothing left between you and the black void stretching out below.
  492. >Lightning arcs stalk through the darkness like primal beasts, trailing thunderclaps like blood-wet roars.
  493. >You, Light, and about fifteen other unaugmented pegasi are huddled around the Moderatus for last-minute instructions.
  494. >"We need to get down quick to not get zapped, then we‘ll keep pushing clouds onto the engine until the shields overload. They’ll probably only flicker so 𝘛𝘦𝘳𝘮𝘪𝘯𝘶𝘴 is preparing a high-amplitude las burst to finish them off. We give the signal when we see the shields discharge."
  495. >The mare takes a look around.
  496. >"If anyone’s hiding any unsanctioned augs, now’d be a good time to confess! I assure you that thing down there’ll be far less forgiving than the Princeps."
  497. >Nobody speaks.
  498. >"Then that’s it. Line up!"
  499.  
  500. >It is here, from the very edge of the runway, that you can see the form of the weather engine sitting in the dark water below for the first time.
  501. >It has a roughly spherical shape, with edges and spikes breaking away from its smooth surface at weird angles all over.
  502. >Its size easily rivals that of 𝘛𝘦𝘳𝘮𝘪𝘯𝘶𝘴 𝘌𝘴𝘵, and it’s propped up to just above the surface of the water on giant, piston-operated legs.
  503. >Tiny lights dot the engine’s unbreakable carapace, chirping in complex patterns that don’t ever repeat.
  504. >Vents are coming out of it in various places, some trailing smoke or gushing water.
  505. >The engine’s entire surface is steaming in the cloudburst provided by the skyfort sitting above it.
  506. >Still, you can see the storm clouds continuing to form in a wide circle, building a hurricane’s eye around the ancient machine.
  507.  
  508. >"No reason to be scared, right?" Feather laughs shakily. "We practiced diving back in basic!"
  509. "Once. From a castle tower on a sunny day in New Canterlot."
  510. >"Well, same thing, I guess."
  511. >"Ready!" Tomcat shouts from somewhere along the line.
  512. "I’ll see you down there."
  513. >The tingly feeling drowning out your fear is back in full force.
  514. "I’m… glad you brought me out here, Light. I’m glad I get to be here with you."
  515. >"Drop!"
  516.  
  517. >Tearing your eyes away from your friend’s smiling face, you step off the flight deck, folding your wings to let the yawning abyss take you.
  518. >Barely two seconds of fall later—with the wind screaming in your ears and your streamlined body racing for terminal velocity—you remember just how much you hate dive insertions.
  519. >But you're far from scared.
  520. >You’re jumpy.
  521. >Excited.
  522. >Here is something you—only you—can do to actually make a difference.
  523. >Something the rest of the Iron Wings are relying on you for.
  524. >Real work.
  525. >Important work.
  526. >It’s been a while since you could say that.
  527. >Maybe forever.
  528. >What’s the risk of crashing into the ocean against that?
  529. >You’d dive headfirst into magma if you had to.
  530. >And you’ll be damned if you let anyone say you didn’t pull your weight.
  531.  
  532. >Keeping a close eye on your altimeter—the glow-in-the-dark display rapidly clicking down—you glance around to get a better idea of what you’re heading for.
  533. >The other pegasi have scattered out, rushing down like birds of prey hunting in the dark.
  534. >The looming structure of the engine is quickly getting larger.
  535. >A few more moments and your altimeter beeps as it ticks below its warning threshold.
  536. >You immediately spread your wings to catch the wind, clenching your teeth as your breakneck descent jerks into a forward push.
  537. >A few more flaps and you’re shakily gaining control, beginning your path around the cyclopean curvature of the rampaging machine.
  538. >Even keeping your distance, you can feel the heat radiating from the metal shell.
  539.  
  540. >Drawing a circle around the engine, you let yourself drift outwards until you’re close enough to the edge of the storm to grab a cloud.
  541. >The angry thing sparks and crackles in your hooves as you go back in, rebelling against the electromagnetic shadow of the powerful shield.
  542. >There is a snap around your wrist as you get close to the hull, your altimeter giving out.
  543. >It’s alright.
  544. >It’s done all it should.
  545.  
  546. >The energy shunted from the giant machine is almost unbearable this close, and you quickly push the cloud against the scorching, steaming surface.
  547. >It disintegrates into a flash of electricity, the ghosting of the disturbed spellwork visible for a split second on the metal.
  548. >You drift out again, away from the heat, away from the teeth-itching electricity.
  549. >A hundred meters below, another pegasus is mirroring your movements, dragging another cloud.
  550. >You’re already back with the next by the time they reach the engine.
  551. >Bringing the next could, you can see the fluctuation in the shield growing just a bit larger.
  552. >The one after that nearly slips away before you drive it home with a well-placed kick.
  553.  
  554.  
  555. >You tire quickly.
  556. >The continuous change between the freezing-cold rain and the sweltering air around the engine is sapping your strength.
  557. >You’ve lost track of how long you’ve been going back and forth, you only know your body is getting closer to its limit with each trip.
  558. >You’re running on fumes, and your muscles have been telling you so for a while now.
  559. >No!
  560. >Focus!
  561. >This is not the time to lose power!
  562. >You can do this.
  563. >You can prove that you’re cut out for this.
  564. >The anti-magic field is growing more restless with each cloud, already sending crawling plasma arcs across the engine’s hull.
  565. >You realize you’re smiling.
  566.  
  567. >A deep boom from below rips you from your thoughts.
  568. >You think it came from underwater.
  569. >"It’s firing its seismic drive! Get up!" Feather is suddenly next to you, pulling you higher.
  570. "Light! How do you–"
  571. >You forget what you were going to say when the water below the engine sinks down, as if a plug had been pulled somewhere down in the dark.
  572. >The displaced volume is rising back up a moment later only to be sucked down again with another boom.
  573. >"Get away! Get clear of the waves!" Feather is shouting at the ponies circling below, the ones closer to the surface of the water.
  574. >Against the crushing tide, she might as well have whispered.
  575. >It’s too late.
  576. >Wide-eyed, you can see the pegasi making a break for it, but the black, towering water easily catches up to them.
  577. >And swallows them whole.
  578.  
  579. >This time you have to grab Feather, keeping her from rushing down.
  580. "What are you doing!?"
  581. >"I can get to them!"
  582. "And do what, get yourself killed as well!?"
  583. >"Let me go, Night!"
  584. >You struggle against her flapping wings.
  585. "I won’t!"
  586. >"But I…" your friend pants, "I can… I can get to them."
  587. "You can’t! And I won’t just watch you disappear!"
  588. >Light’s flailing grows weaker as another wave rushes out.
  589. >There is no sign of the Iron Wings that were pushing clouds just a moment ago.
  590. >"They’re gone…"
  591. >You want to say something, but nothing comes out.
  592. >You just stare, following the building-sized oscillations crawl their way into the distance.
  593.  
  594. >It sounds foolish, but until now, you never actually considered the possibility that you could get hurt out here.
  595. >That Feather could.
  596. >You were simply too busy doing your job to be scared.
  597. "Maybe we can–"
  598. >The moment you find your voice again is the moment the shields of the stressed engine finally flicker.
  599. >However, instead of quietly drawing down to a level at which 𝘛𝘦𝘳𝘮𝘪𝘯𝘶𝘴 can breach them, they fail by shunting the excess energy to the atmosphere.
  600. >A shockwave of light and heat explodes from the surface of the engine.
  601.  
  602.  
  603. >The wind blowing in your face wakes you up, together with a tingling sensation in the pit of your stomach.
  604. >You’re falling.
  605. >The first sight your swirling mind is able to grasp is that of the disturbed water rushing up to meet you.
  606. >The second is the unconscious form of your closest, oldest friend plummeting towards a hard landing.
  607. >The image is enough to push a wave of cold sobriety through your system, tingling adrenaline shooting into your limbs.
  608. >You flap your wings, accelerating your fall to catch the sinking pegasus.
  609.  
  610. >Your racing mind brings you back to your time on the Cloudhaven weather team.
  611. >Even back then, Feather used to talk about wanting to make a difference someday.
  612. >Her eyes shining brightly, she told you of her sister, who had just gotten accepted into the search-and-rescue outfit.
  613. >Maybe Light knew what coming out here meant all along.
  614. >Maybe the clueless opportunist is just the role she feels most comfortable playing.
  615. >Maybe she just is that much of a good soul.
  616. >It doesn’t really matter.
  617. >All that matters is that you close the distance before the blackish sea makes her disappear forever.
  618. >By the time your legs wrap around your friend’s torso you can already feel the surf on your coat.
  619. >You pull up as hard as you can, your exhausted wings screaming.
  620. >Your descent slows, then reverses.
  621. >Light is banged up pretty good but breathing.
  622.  
  623. >Out of the corner of your eye, you can see that the engine’s shields are yet to be fully broken. >Glittering waves of magic dance across the machine’s hull as it struggles to recharge.
  624. >𝘛𝘦𝘳𝘮𝘪𝘯𝘶𝘴 𝘌𝘴𝘵 still needs to make the killing shot
  625. >Surely someone has given the signal by now, right?
  626. >Any second now.
  627. >Your heart sinks when you find the form of the skyfort again, the titanic structure wrapped in complete and total darkness.
  628. >The pulse of the waning shields has killed its power.
  629. >No.
  630. >The engine is buzzing—recharging—and still vomiting clouds and waves.
  631. >No!
  632.  
  633. >"Night!"
  634. >Feather is stirring in your arms, and the simple fact that she’s alive makes you shiver with relief.
  635. >"It’s Princeps Dash!" she points up at the fort, where a tiny pair of metal wings catches the light of the witchfire bleeding from the disturbed engine.
  636. >She jumps off the edge, accelerating with a single, powerful stroke of her augments.
  637. >She’s already moving faster than you thought any pony could, dragging a streak of rainbow light behind her like a tracer bullet.
  638. >In the time it takes you to blink, the Princeps shoots past the engine, and when she does, a spectral explosion unmatched by anything you ever saw bursts around her.
  639. >It is chased by an ear-popping thunderclap and—more importantly—the electric crackle of the anti-magicals giving out under the onslaught.
  640. >"Tell me again how she’s not a Knight," Feather breathes. "Show me another pegasus who can do that. Princeps or not."
  641. >You guess you’ll have to give her that one.
  642.  
  643. "It’s resetting! It actually worked!"
  644. >The engine groans ponderously as it starts to right itself, mechanical shutters opening and closing all along its hull.
  645. >Bangs and snaps echo from within, as if unspeakably-huge parts were being moved around to rest more comfortably.
  646. >The steam gushing from the machine’s vents subsides, the radiating heat already feels more bearable.
  647. >The waves of disturbed, black water level off, and the storm loses its frenzy.
  648. >The ragged clouds slowly give way to the stars above.

/pj50kb/ Wings of Iron

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