My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, the My Little Pony brand,
and all inherent properties © Hasbro, Inc.
BioShock and all inherent properties © Irrational Games
Certain names and locations have been borrowed with permission
from a map of Equestria drawn by hlissner, who is awesome.
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created by Alexstrazsa, who is also awesome.
Cover image created by CouchCrusader, who,
to be redundant once more, is awesome.
• • •
There were certain things, Spike had learned over the years, that you simply did not do when you lived with a magically gifted unicorn mare. When she was exhausted after staying up past four reading an astrology textbook, for example, you did not wake her up before noon the next day for anything less important than a meteor strike. When she was practicing a newly discovered shrinking spell and needed a test subject for her first scientific trial, you did not stand obliviously in the middle of the library trying to figure out what “temperamental” meant. And when the love of your life gave you the gift of a lifetime, you did not ever let her get a washcloth within ten feet of your face.
But if there was one thing Spike knew better than anything else, it was that when magically gifted unicorn mares got frustrated, angry, stressed, or all of them at once, things could get real hairy, real fast. So when the young purple-scaled dragon woke up to the sound of a door slamming and somepony muttering lividly under their breath, he just laid his head gently back against his pillow and tried to convince himself he was still asleep. As usual, it didn’t work.
“Stupid, stuck-up, snobby, incompetent...argh!”
Spike squeezed his eyes shut and kept his groan mostly to himself, and opened them again just in time to see a fuming mass of violet fur throw herself onto the bed next to his and scream into her pillow. When the mass didn’t move for another thirty seconds after that, Spike reckoned it was safe enough to speak.
“Morning, Twilight,” he said.
Whatever Twilight said in return was blocked off by the pillow still wrapped around most of her head. “So...I guess the presentation didn’t go well?” Spike continued tentatively.
“The presentation?” Twilight lifted her head up with a jerk and stared down at Spike, the look in her eyes teetering back and forth between “simmer” and “bake”. “Oh, the presentation was fine. Great, actually. It was a fantastic presentation, Spike. The best I’ve ever given...no, the best that anypony in the history of Equestria has ever given. I mean, what else would you expect from years of research and months of planning and practicing, and a whole day sitting out in the cold waiting for somepony to remember the appointment I set up three weeks ago...but of course, that’s no reason for the Board to actually, oh, I don’t know, pay attention while I’m showing them the biggest technomagical innovation in two thousand years. Or look me in the eye. Or stay awake.”
“So it...didn’t go well?”
For a moment, Twilight looked like she was about to reply, but at the last second she just growled deep in her throat and slammed her face down into her pillow again, where it stubbornly stayed no matter how many times Spike assured her she was overreacting. He was right in the middle of attempt number three when a knock rang out from the door to Twilight’s bedroom, just before it swung open a moment later to reveal a stocky orange earth mare with a braided blonde mane and a well-worn brown Stetson resting between her ears.
“Twilight? You in here?” Applejack called out as she entered. “I thought I saw...well, howdy, Spike! Did I wake ya up?”
“I wish,” Spike replied as he jumped off the bottom step down from the loft, his mood soured and his brow creased into a disgruntled V.
Applejack’s smile wavered, and fell into a knowing smirk. “I take it that means Twilight’s home from Canterlot?”
“And I take it that means her presentation didn’t go too well?”
After a quick glance up towards the loft, Spike grimaced and shook his head. To be honest, he didn’t really know what her presentation had even been about. Actually, he was pretty sure nopony did besides Twilight. She’d tried to explain the principles behind it to him once or twice, but the only parts he’d comprehended had been that it had something to do with magical energy and that she’d been working on it bit by bit ever since her days at Celestia’s School For Gifted Unicorns. Four months ago, she’d had some kind of revelation in her sleep—at three in the morning, of course—and ever since then she had virtually lived in her lab in the basement, working on a project she kept saying would change Equestria as they knew it forever. Spike couldn’t imagine what it could be or how an idea someone came up with before breakfast could ever change anything, but it meant the world to Twilight, and as far as he was concerned that was reason enough to assume it was important. Just hopefully not important enough to require any testing first.
“Twilight?” Applejack hollered again. “You all right up there?”
“‘M fine,” came Twilight’s muffled, listless response a moment later.
With a heavy sigh and a sympathetic glance at Spike, Applejack trotted up the stairs and went to stand by Twilight’s bed. “C’mon, Twi,” she said, gently prodding her friend in the side. “Ya can’t hide up here forever.”
Twilight rolled over onto her back and grunted, but didn’t get off the bed or take the pillow away from her face. Applejack sighed again, and her smirk began to return. “Aw, come now. It ain’t that bad, is it?”
Twilight moaned and nodded vigorously, the motion only visible through the jiggling of the pillow and the tip of her horn bobbing up and down just above it.
The pillow jiggled up and down again.
“Do you wanna talk about it?”
Now it was moving from left to right.
“Do you wanna get up and face this like the grown, responsible, intelligent mare you are?”
Left to right again.
Even from down below the loft, Spike could see Applejack biting her lip. “Of course she thinks it’s funny,” he mumbled under his breath as he went downstairs to dig up something to eat. “She doesn’t have to live with her.”
When he came back upstairs a few minutes later with an half-empty box of hay flakes clutched in his claws, Applejack had finally managed to get Twilight up to a sitting position, though her chin was still propped up on the pillow between her forehooves, and there were still more than a few thunderclouds flashing behind her eyes.
“Now just tell me what happened,” Applejack said firmly from her spot next to Twilight on the bed. Twilight let out a grumpy huff and muttered something about the stupid Academy and the stupid Board with their big stupid robes and their big stupid melon heads, but didn’t give her friend much else to work with beyond that. After a minute or so of optimistic patience, Applejack seemed to decide that she’d gotten about all she was going to get.
“Well, a watched apple never falls,” she murmured to herself before raising her voice to speak to Twilight again. “I think I got a bit’a cider in my bag someplace. Home-brewed and bottled from the juiciest Golden Delicious you’ll ever see. A sip or two’a that oughta cheer ya right up. That sound all right?”
Twilight hugged her pillow tight to her chest and said nothing, but nodded slightly after a pause of a few seconds with her face still scrunched into a scowl. After giving Twilight a friendly pat on the back, Applejack got to her hooves and came back down from the loft to poke through the saddlebag she had dropped by the foot of the stairs leading up to it.
“Is she okay?” Spike said, a little bit of concern creeping into his voice despite his best efforts to keep his tone curt. As much as he hated being woken up before he was good and ready to be awake, seeing Twilight so upset was still something he hated even more.
“She’s just havin’ a rough mornin’, is all,” Applejack replied, her voice soft enough not to reach Twilight up above. “She didn’t say much, but I get the feelin’ she didn’t get quite the reception she was expectin’ out there.”
A sudden tickle in the back of Spike’s throat cut off his words before he could even start to say them, and a second later a jaw-cracking yawn split across his face. “You can say that again,” he muttered once he had blinked the moisture out of his eyes and regained the ability to speak. He got a little chuckle out of Applejack for that comment.
“I wouldn’t worry about her,” she assured him. “Give her a few hours to get over it, and she’ll be right as rain. And in the meantime...well, consarnit it all!”
“What?” Spike asked. “What’s wrong?”
“I could’a sworn I had a couple bottles in here...” Applejack said with a frown, glancing back up at Twilight for a moment before turning to Spike again. “Looks like the cider’ll have to wait for a bit. You mind keepin’ Twilight company while I go fetch a fresh jug from the barn?”
Spike stuffed another pawful of hay flakes into his mouth and nodded, parts of a complete breakfast flying everywhere as he did. He was about to go back up to offer a bowl to Twilight when Applejack opened the bedroom door just in time to take a spray of confetti straight to the forehead.
“Surpri...oh, hi, Applejack! What are you doing in Twilight’s bedroom?”
“I could ask you the same thing, Pinkie,” Applejack countered in a bewildered tone as the pink-maned earth pony bounced into the room. “All of you, actually,” she added a moment later, once she noticed the crowd of concerned-looking mares following Pinkie Pie inside.
“Oh, where is she? Where’s the poor dear?” Rarity exclaimed, only wasting a few moments rushing frantically around the room before zipping up into Twilight’s loft to console the frazzled-looking filly. Seemingly following her fashion-conscious friend’s lead, Fluttershy flew up to hover anxiously by Twilight’s side as Rarity cleaned up the purple unicorn’s mane with a magically levitated brush, all the while assuring her over and over again that rejection was a natural part of the creative process and that most critics only liked what they could easily understand anyway. That left Rainbow Dash to explain to Applejack how in Equestria they had known to come here so quickly after Twilight got home.
“Combo,” Rainbow said with a shrug, as Pinkie popped up from behind her to clarify.
“That’s right!” the party pony confirmed. “Scratchy throat, twitchy hoof, and pinchy knee means that somepony’s being a grumpy-grumps!”
Applejack blinked, and thought better of the question sitting on the tip of her tongue. “I’ll never understand you, Pinkie,” she said quietly before bending a smile back onto her lips. “Anyhow, I’m sure Twilight’ll be mighty happy to see you girls t-”
“Oh, heavens, just look at these bags under your eyes!” Rarity gasped, prodding at Twilight’s cheeks like an artist working a hunk of clay. “Did you even sleep last night?”
“Not re…” Twilight started to answer before Fluttershy cut her off.
“Do you think she’ll be okay?” the pink-maned pegasus asked breathlessly, the edges of her forehooves prematurely perched on her chin. “Is she okay, Rarity? You’re okay, right, Twilight?”
“I think she’s got bigger problems than whether she forgot to put on her eye black this morning,” Rainbow Dash commented dryly to the now thoroughly miffed fashionista. “How bad was it? Did they even listen?” she went on to Twilight. “You want me to help you persuade ‘em to give ya a second chance?” The cyan pegasus launched herself into the air and held up both her forelegs in her best approximation of a fighting stance. “’Cause I got all the persuasive power ya need right here.”
“First of all,” Rarity cut in tersely, keeping her eyes on Rainbow Dash as she gently nudged a quivering Fluttershy out from under Twilight’s comforter, “it is eye shadow, not eye black. And second of all, the last thing Twilight needs you to do is carry on with this…pugilistic nonsense about fighting the entire Canterlot Occulumental Board with your bare hooves.”
“Well, maybe a bit’a pugilisticalness is just what they need to get their heads on straight! They’re nothin’ but a bunch’a old geezers anyhow, right?”
“Those geezers just so happen to be the most influential and most powerful unicorns in all of Equestria,” Rarity hissed. “They are the pinnacle of all magical knowledge in the realm, and it is the dream of every unicorn that someday they might be allowed to join their vaulted ranks and be immortalized for eternity in the Hall of the Occulumens.”
“Don’t look now, but somepony’s mane’s turning green,” Rainbow muttered.
“Ooh, where?” Pinkie interrupted before Rarity could pick her jaw back up off her chest. “I wanna see! I wanna see the green ma-”
Everypony’s first reaction was to fall silent and turn towards Twilight, which was why it took them a few seconds to realize the shout had come from Applejack. “Let her breathe, for Pete’s sake,” she continued once she had the whole group’s attention, and with varying degrees of bashfulness the four ponies around the bed backed away and gave their friend a chance to speak.
Twilight took her time making use of the opportunity, and when she did her words were preceded by a shaky giggle. “Well, at least I’m not angry anymore,” she said bemusedly, the corners of her mouth staying perked even after her laughter died away. “Thank you all so much for coming over. You don’t know how much it means to know you guys are here for me.” Twilight paused, then weakly chuckled again. “Even if I haven’t ever bothered to tell you how much this opportunity meant to me too.”
“Aw, don’t worry about it, Twilight,” Rainbow Dash quickly replied as she alighted on the spare bed across the room, her face bent into a playful grin. “You’re always workin’ on some crazy science-y magical junk. We’re kinda used to it by now.”
“Not that there’s anything wrong with crazy magical junk,” Fluttershy assured her. “That is, unless you do think there’s something wrong with it, in which case we, um…well, I guess we would, uh…”
“I think what we’re all tryin’ ta say,” Applejack explained as she stepped up into the loft, “is that while we might not understand everything you do, we still understand you enough to know that’s not what really matters. What matters is that we’ve got your back anytime you need us, and you’ve got ours. We’re your friends, Twilight, and that ain’t never gonna change.”
The rest of the group all nodded and agreed, and with six beaming smiles on six jubilant faces, the Elements of Harmony crowded together and piled into a warm and affectionate hug. Spike watched the display for a moment or two, then with a gruff snort he rolled his eyes and looked away.
“Mares…” he muttered into the box of hay flakes as he dug around for one last scoop.
For fifteen seconds, the scene in Twilight’s bedroom was peaceful, but after that Rainbow Dash’s curiosity couldn’t wait any longer. “Soooo…now that nopony’s upset anymore,” she said, ignoring the warning glare Applejack sent her way, “what was your presentation about? I mean, you said you never bothered to tell us before, but there’s no reason you can’t just go ahead and tell us now, right?”
“I don’t think Twilight’s in the mood to bring that back up at the moment,” Applejack started to say, but Twilight debunked that claim before her friend had even finished bringing it up.
“It’s fine, Applejack,” the purple unicorn said. “She’s right. There’s no reason I can’t explain my project to you guys. Do all of you want me to?”
“Of course we do, darling,” Rarity answered, an assertion that was echoed by Pinkie Pie—“Oh, yeah!”—and Fluttershy—“I’d like to know about it…”—in the same instant.
Twilight craned her neck past Rarity and looked towards the stairs. “Applejack?”
Applejack glanced around the room, then shrugged and grinned. “If you’re all right with talkin’,” she said, “then I’m all right with listenin’.”
“Sounds like a ‘yes’ to me,” Rainbow interjected. “Now come on, tell us!”
“Okay,” Twilight agreed. “I guess I’d better start at the beginning, then.” She went silent for a moment and shut her eyes, apparently collecting her thoughts, then looked back at her friends with her gaze aimed mostly at Rainbow Dash.
“How much do you know about magic?” she asked.
“Uh…I know everypony has some of it,” Dash said. “And unicorns have a whole bunch of it.”
“Well, yes, that’s right, but how much do you know about what it really is?”
“It’s energy,” Rarity explained with only the slightest hint of hubris. “Magic is a manifestation of natural energy that all members of the equine race can access.”
“Well, yeah. That too,” Rainbow added quickly.
“That’s close, Rarity, but there’s actually even more to it than that,” Twilight said, much to the satisfaction of Rainbow Dash. “Magical energy is one of the last great mysteries of the modern age. In a lot of ways, it’s just like regular energy: different ponies can have different amounts of strength with it, it runs out if you use too much of it, and you can train your body to be able to use more of it for longer periods of time. But in other ways, it’s like nothing else we know of in this universe. We know that it has unique traits for each of the three races, but we don’t know how it always knows what a pony’s special talent is almost before he or she does. And we also don’t know what exactly it does to make pegasi able to walk on clouds, or earth ponies able to know when and where to plant crops, or unicorns able to lift objects and pull them across a room.”
Twilight emphasized her last point by wrapping Spike in her trademark purple aura and hoisting him up into the loft, the baby dragon shouting and squirming the whole way up. Once he was safely back on the ground and looking none the worse for wear, his housemate got up from her bed, paced over to the window, and continued.
“Star Swirl the Bearded was the first pony to ever truly experiment with magic, and his research still forms the basis of all magical theory in Equestria even today, almost two thousand years after he died. He believed that magic was a mystical, otherworldly force that didn’t technically exist on our own plane of reality, that actually functioned as a conduit through the opposing realms of discord and reason. His theory was that magic was nothing more than a visible substantiation of the chaos inherent in an invisible alternate dimension, the counterbalance of which is what gives our own dimension its fertility and effervescence, and us our control over what we refer to as ‘magic’.”
Noticing the blank looks on her friends’ faces, Twilight shook her head sheepishly and backed up a bit. “Think of it this way,” she said. “Imagine that you have two pastures, and that there’s a big fence running between them. On one side of the fence, everything works normally, the way it’s supposed to. And on the other, the exact opposite: up is down, left is right…basically, everything that happened when Discord escaped. Those fields are like the two dimensions Star Swirl talked about, with one ruled by reason and the other by chaos.”
“So…the fence in the middle keeps them apart?” Fluttershy asked slowly.
“Exactly. According to Star Swirl, there’s something that works just like that fence keeping our world, which he called Rationalis, from getting mixed up with Absonus, the dimension of chaos. And magic is…magic is sort of like a hole in the fence, where some part of Absonus can get through to us in a form that we can use. That’s why magic can allow us to do things that, in a world completely governed by the laws of nature, wouldn’t be possible.”
“My head hurts,” Rainbow Dash groaned.
“So did mine, when I first heard about it,” Twilight replied with a laugh. “And I haven’t even touched on how complicated the technomagical science gets after that. But it’s still what all magical philosophy is governed by to this day. Until about five years ago, it was the closest thing to a reasonable explanation that we ever thought we’d have.”
“Wait, until five years ago?” Applejack interrupted. “Ya mean there’s more?”
“Not just more,” Twilight answered in a hushed, almost reverent tone. “Something else entirely.”
She paused again to let her last remark sink in, and more than one of her friends wished she’d quit with the dramatic effects and just get on with it already. “Five years ago, before I met any of you, a pony by the name of Foxtail Meadow came before the Board with an idea he said would change everything we’d ever believed about what magic was and how it worked. He said that magic wasn’t a border between reason and chaos. He said that there weren’t two different dimensions that had to remain in balance for the universe to continue to exist. He said that Star Swirl the Bearded, the pony whose wisdom and knowledge we’d trusted for as long as anypony could remember, was wrong, and that he was ri-”
“Just get on with it already!” Spike shouted over Twilight’s tirade.
After throwing Spike her best disgruntled glare, Twilight sighed heavily and cut to the chase. “Foxtail’s theory was that magic wasn’t just an anomaly, but a unique form of energy all its own that could be found within every living being in our world. He believed that in the trees and in our bodies and in the very air we breathed, there was an invisible current of inherent magical force that ran through all of us, and that we could all tap into it and use as much of it as we were capable of handling. Most importantly, though, he believed that, given enough time and enough effort, he could find a way to access that current and convert the energy inside it into a physical form…like something you could see and touch and store in a bottle in your cupboard. And since this current drew its power from a symbiotic relationship with living organisms, as long as the world around us remained healthy, it would never run dry. In other words, if we could draw a physical embodiment of magic from this current any time we wanted, we would have a never-ending source of unlimited magical energy. There’d be no spell we couldn’t cast, no invention we couldn’t design, no dream we couldn’t achieve.”
A crucial gear clicked into place in Pinkie Pie’s head, and she gasped with her eyes almost brimming over with excitement. “I could put magic into food!” she shouted. “I could make cupcakes that taste like magic!”
“It certainly does sound incredible, Twilight,” Rarity said. “But…well, to put it in context, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a magic-flavored cupcake before. If this Foxtail fellow had such an idea, why haven’t any of us heard of it?”
“Hey, yeah!” Rainbow agreed. “Why haven’t we heard of any’a this?”
“Because everypony on the Board thought he was insane,” Twilight said, speaking to her friends as if she almost couldn’t believe she’d had to connect the dots for them. “I mean, he’d spent his whole life working a plow in Dream Valley, and he paid for his trip to Canterlot by selling his entire family farm. For someone like that to go before the Canterlot Occulumental Board and claim that their entire interpretation of technomagical theory was manure…well, it was like walking up to Celestia and saying the sun could move just fine without her doing a darn thing. He was laughed out of the city by every unicorn within earshot, and two weeks after that he vanished without a trace. No one’s seen hide nor hair of him since.”
Five ponies and one dragon looked at each other, and their patient smiles slowly began to fade. “Well, then…what was the point of all that?” Rainbow asked bluntly. “Why’d you spend all that time telling us about some broke-flank country pony who didn’t know he was crazy?”
Twilight smiled, and her horn flashed into action. “Because he wasn’t crazy,” she said cryptically as her saddlebag floated up from the landing below. With painstakingly careful hooves, Twilight brought the bag down gently onto her bed, undid the strap on the front and, with her friends watching with furrowed brows, flipped it open.
“Because he was right.”
The collective Elements of Harmony had seen a lot of amazing things in their lives, but nothing prepared them for what they saw inside Twilight’s saddlebag. Sitting at the bottom of the main compartment was a small corked vial only four inches tall and no more than an inch wide, and inside that vial was a swirling, shifting, sapphire-blue liquid that glowed brightly enough to set the whole inside of the bag awash with its eerily ethereal light. Looking at the liquid was like staring up into a clear night sky; the longer you kept your eyes on it and the farther you let your gaze sink into it, the more it felt like the vial had no bottom, like the heavens had no end. The light had an almost physical permanence to it, the fluid an almost exuberant spark of life inside it. The hairs of the backs of each of their necks stood up as Twilight floated the vial out of her bag, and it wasn’t long after that before the fur lining their legs and backs was doing the same thing.
“When rumors of the Board’s decision reached the halls of Canterlot University, it wasn’t long before I heard about it too,” Twilight continued softly. “Most ponies believed what the Board said and forgot all about Foxtail, but I wasn’t so easily convinced. I spent most of the next two years running a few of my own experiments to see if his theory had any merit, but by the time I came out here and met you guys, I’d pretty much given up on it. It wasn’t until about a year after we defeated Discord that I remembered Foxtail again, and it was another eight months, fifteen days, and sixteen hours before I finally had my breakthrough.”
“Twilight…what is that?” Applejack asked slowly, still hypnotized a bit by the radiance of the vial.
“Exactly what the Canterlot Occulumental Board said couldn’t exist,” the unicorn answered with pride. “Pure, untainted magical energy, converted into physical form and safely packaged for equine consumption.”
“Consumption?” Rainbow asked. “You mean you can drink that stuff?”
“Drink it, freeze it into a popsicle…bake it into cupcakes. You can do pretty much anything you want with it,” answered Twilight. “In fact, if my theories about some of its more esoteric properties are right, you could even inject it straight into your veins.”
Rainbow Dash’s throat bulged ever so slightly, and the feathers on her wings ruffled before flattening against her sides. “I…think I’ll skip the injection stuff for now,” she coughed, giving her shoulder a preemptive rub. Once she noticed Applejack’s questioning look, her eyes narrowed and fell to the floor. “I don’t like needles, okay?” she mumbled a moment later. “They give me the creeps.”
“And you did this all by yourself?” Rarity asked.
“Well…yes, actually. Sort of. I mean, Foxtail did most of the preliminary work, of course, but I guess since I was the first to actually put it into practice, you could say something along those lines…”
“Twilight, that’s amazing!” Fluttershy gushed, her cheeks flaring pink when she realized how loudly she had spoken. Pinkie Pie was quick to agree with her, though, as were the rest of Twilight’s friends. Even Spike had to admit that Twilight’s secret project sounded like it lived up to the benefit of the doubt he’d been giving it. Twilight blushed and assured everypony that it wasn’t such a big deal if you thought about it, but the giddy glimmer of self-satisfaction in her eyes was unmistakable.
“So what d’you reckon you’ll do now?” Applejack asked, once Twilight’s face was even redder than Fluttershy’s.
“Actually, I don’t really know,” Twilight admitted. “In hindsight, I probably should’ve expected the Board not to be interested, but…I guess I got so excited about the opportunity that I never figured out what I’d do after I took it. I never even came up with a name for this stuff.”
“On it!” Pinkie shouted. “Let’s see…Bluedoo Voodoo Juice! Or maybe, Twilight’s Terrific Touguetastic Treat! No…something else with a ‘v’. Vigorous! What rhymes with vigorous?”
“Well, at least that’s one thing you won’t have to figure out,” Fluttershy commented after the inevitable span of a few seconds where Pinkie’s tongue was moving faster than any of her friends’ brains could process. Twilight grinned, a small giggle slipped out of Rarity’s mouth, and soon enough everypony had their hooves clutched around their stomachs and tears rolling down their cheeks. It was a long time before anyone could breathe normally again, and when that time came Pinkie was still churning out names like a hyperactive auctioneer, her eyes distantly pointed towards the ceiling and her hoof stuck pensively behind her ear.
“Boy, she just don’t quit, does she?” Applejack snorted as she wiped her eyes dry.
“Try spending a whole day on a hoofcar with her,” Rarity gushed. “It was a full week before I could even look at a cherry again!” Spike let out a boorish guffaw, and was too late slapping his paw over his mouth to cover the hiccup that followed.
“No kidding,” Rainbow Dash coughed. “You two came back into town that morning, an’ Pinkie was bouncing along like normal and you were just walking behind her with your mane all frizzy muttering, ‘Chimicherry, cherrychanga, chimicher…bahahaha!”
There was a short but valiant struggle against the urge to crack up again, but the other ponies in the room could only last but so long before they bent in half and collapsed onto their backs again. Rarity held out the longest, indignantly insisting that it wasn’t funny, but another hiccup from Spike finally set her over the edge, and her peals of laughter were the loudest of the bunch.
“You know, this morning really wasn’t that bad,” Twilight mused a few minutes later once relative calm was restored, the only breaks in the silence coming from the breathy sighs of the prostrate ponies around her and the occasional hiccup from Spike. “I mean, I’ve still got my research, and that vial of…”
“Sparkle Soda,” Pinkie announced.
“…whatever it is. So the Canterlot Occulumental Board didn’t want anything to do with it. They didn’t want anything to do with Foxtail either. I just have to work harder and get more proof. Sooner or later, they have to come around.”
“That’s the spirit, Twi,” Applejack said over another of Spike’s hiccups. “Whatever you wanna do, we got your…whew. We’re with ya.”
“I know you ar…honestly, Spike, it wasn’t that funny!”
Twilight just barely got her say in before yet another hiccup nearly knocked Spike over, each new spasm seeming louder than the last. “I can’t—hic—make it—hic—stop. I don’t—hic—know what’s wro—hic—wrong.”
“What’sa matter, Spike?” Rainbow teased. “Hey, cherry for your thoughts!”
“Oh, stop it!” Rarity squealed.
“Oh, f—hic—for Pete’s sa —hic—sak—hic—hic—hic...”
“I’ll get some water,” Fluttershy offered, but Spike called her back with a single raised claw. “Just a min—hic—minute,” he said, his other paw balled into a fist over his mouth. After a tense few seconds and a couple more stray coughs, Spike let his arms drop and sighed with relief.
“All clear,” he said shakily. “Wow, that was weird. I never get the hiccups that bad unless I’m getting a letter from-”
A strange shadow passed over Spike’s face, and the baby dragon fell silent as his grin twisted into a grimace. He coughed once, hiccupped twice, and then with a mighty intake of air, he belched out a horizontal column of heatless green fire, which swirled into a ball in midair and reformed into a tightly rolled scroll of yellowed paper, tied with a neat black ribbon and sealed with blood-red wax. Twilight lit her horn and caught the scroll just before it hit the ground, and made sure Spike was okay before she took a closer look at it.
“Now that’s weird too,” Applejack said. “It’s only been two days since we sent our last letter.”
“You…did apologize, right, Pinkie?” Rarity asked tentatively, thinking—as everyone else surely was—back to the circumstances that had led up to Pinkie Pie learning the particular lesson their letter had been about.
“Hmm? Oh, yeah, lots!” Pinkie answered. “It wasn’t that big of a deal, though, seriously. Mane hair grows back, doesn’t it?”
“Mm…mm-hmm,” Rarity hummed back without making eye contact.
“Actually, I don’t think this is even from the Princess,” Twilight said. “This isn’t her seal on the front here. And frankly, I don’t think she’d ever be the type to use black ribbon.”
“But then…who else could it be from?” Spike asked. Everyone looked back at the paper again, and now the whole situation seemed almost eerie.
“Well, are you gonna open it or what?” Rainbow eventually blurted out.
Twilight paused to consider the matter once more, then shrugged and unsealed the letter with a tiny pop. “Might as well,” she muttered under her breath, her eyes already scanning over the first few lines.
It wasn’t the fact that Twilight’s eyebrows shot up a third of the way through the letter that really bothered anyone, nor was it the fact that they soon creased downward and gradually bent into a puzzled scowl. It wasn’t even the fact that she paused for several seconds once she was done with the same expression still frozen on her face. No, the thing that really got everypony’s hearts pumping was the fact that, at the end of those several seconds, Twilight moved the letter back down a few inches and started to read it again. Twilight Sparkle never read anything twice, because she never needed to read anything twice. She’d zipped through textbooks that’d give the highest scholars in Equestria more than a moment’s trouble without breaking a sweat, so if there was something in this letter that Twilight had to go over more than once, that was more than enough to let her friends know that things were not at all fine and dandy in the library that morning.
Once Twilight finished her second read-through, she still hadn’t spoken in almost two minutes. Nopony wanted to be the one to break the silence, which meant it ended up being Applejack who did.
“Well?” she said. “What is it?”
Twilight started to reply, but seemed unable to find the right words, or really any words at all. “It’s…”
“Just read it aloud, darling,” Rarity requested. Twilight nodded quickly, cleared her throat, and with a deep breath held up the letter for a third time.
“Miss Twilight Sparkle,” she read. “You do not know who I am, nor would I expect you have any inkling of why I am writing to you. I, however, am very interested in getting to know who you are, and more specifically interested in what I believe we can achieve if our respective talents were to be combined.”
Twilight paused, and when no one else took the opportunity to butt in, she continued. “Miss Sparkle, I don’t wish to obscure the point of this message any longer than necessary. Simply put, you are the kind of mare with the ability, the intellect, and most importantly the will to push the boundaries of magical theory further than anypony before you has dared to dream. Through my contacts in Canterlot, I have heard of your research regarding the theories of one Foxtail Meadow, and in light of your apparent success in that endeavor, I would like to cordially invite you to present your findings to me personally, tomorrow evening promptly at 1900 Greenhitch Standard Time.”
“Ha! How ‘bout that?” Applejack shouted triumphantly. “Ain’t even the afternoon yet, and you’re already gettin’ another offer!”
“That’s not all,” Twilight said quietly, waiting for Applejack to quiet down before she went on. “Unfortunately, my current state of affairs does not allow any opportunities for international travel, so if you wish to accept my proposal, you will have to make arrangements to visit me at my current residence, the coordinates for which you may find in the postscript below. I expect the trip and my own personal analysis of your claims will require about a week of your time, so please plan accordingly. I would also advise you to dress lightly, as depending on your mode of transport, your journey may be somewhat wet.”
“International?” whispered Fluttershy.
“Current residence?” wondered Rainbow Dash.
“Somewhat wet?” gasped Rarity.
“The parasprites and vermin that infest the streets of Canterlot would sell their souls for a single ounce of your potential, Miss Sparkle,” Twilight read. “Do not make the mistake of trivializing my desire to help you reach it. Should you choose to decline my assistance, I do not intend to offer it again.” One last pause. “And then there’s just this symbol that looks like a globe and two lines with a bunch of numbers on them. I guess those would be the coordinates.”
For the first time that morning, the silence that filled the room could really be felt hanging heavy in the air. “Well, that’s…good, right?” said Pinkie.
“If that’s what ‘good’ sounds like nowadays, then I must be hearin’ things the wrong way,” Applejack replied. “I hardly even understood half of what that letter said. What was all that malarkey about her ‘current state of affairs’ not lettin’ her come out here to see you?”
“And vermin in the streets of Canterlot?” Rarity scoffed. “What on earth is that supposed to mean?”
“Why would somepony ask you to come visit them, and not even tell you their name?” Fluttershy pondered aloud.
“Well, at least we know where to find ‘em, sorta,” Dash pointed out. “That is, assuming it’s even a pony who wrote that. What if it’s just some huge, horrible monster who thinks unicorns taste good with peanut butter?”
“I don’t think a huge, horrible monster would have such neat handwriting, Rainbow,” Twilight reasoned. “Or know how to spell ‘analysis’. In any case, it doesn’t sound like…whoever this is wants to hurt me. If they already know about my presentation, they must either know a lot of ponies in Canterlot or be amazingly talented with magic.”
“Or be a huge, horrible monster,” Dash repeated. “I’m just saying.”
“So what are you gonna do, Twilight?” Spike asked, peering over his housemate’s shoulder to get a peek at the letter she was still levitating in front of her. He had expected he’d get at least a minute or two to read it himself while Twilight was thinking things over, but to his dismay it only took her a few seconds to set her jaw and make up her mind.
“All right,” she said, and there wasn’t a soul in Equestria who could’ve thought she wasn’t sure about her decision. “The letter said it’d be a mistake to say no to this opportunity, and it’s right. I won’t get another chance like this for the rest of my life. I’m gonna go.”
Applejack took a moment to suck in a breath, then let it out all at once and nodded. “Then I’m gonna go with you."
“Applejack, you don’t have to-”
“I know I don’t. That ain’t why I’m doin’ it. I said I had your back, and I said what I meant. So that bein’ that, I ain’t about to let you go runnin’ off to another presentation all by your lonesome.” Applejack grinned and raised an eyebrow, almost daring Twilight to tell her no again. “Ergo, I’m comin’ with ya.”
There wasn’t even time to so much as say thank you. “I’ll go as well,” Rarity said. “All things considered, I’d rather like to meet this pony myself. Who knows? It might be a stallion. He might be handsome.”
“I’m in,” added Rainbow Dash with an impish smirk. “Because when it does turn out to be a monster and he gobbles us all up for dinner, somepony’s gonna be there to say ‘I told you so’.”
“I’ll come too!” Pinkie Pie declared, and Fluttershy followed suit a moment later, albeit with a bit less exuberance. Spike almost rounded out the group, but one last ill-timed yawn brought out the old “you’re just a baby, someone has to take care of the library, you wouldn’t have any fun anyway” argument, and so seven was once again whittled down to six. To be fair, though, they had a point this time: fantastic possibilities of Twilight’s invention aside, the idea of spending a week in some far-off—and probably gemless—land waiting for her to finish showing it off sounded about as appealing as a root canal.
“Well, I’d say that just about settles it,” Applejack proclaimed once Spike had been more or less appeased. “You reckon we’ll start out around noon tomorrow?”
“We’ve got to figure out where we’ll end up first,” Twilight replied with a laugh. “We don’t even know where this place is yet.”
“The letter said we might get wet. Maybe it’s near a river,” Fluttershy suggested.
“Or the beach!” Pinkie countered. “I love the beach! We could go snorkeling and dive for seashells and lie out in the sun all day! I hope it’s the beach. I could really use some sun, actually. I think my tan’s starting to wear off.”
“It might be a while before we know for sure, girls. It’s been a long time since I’ve brushed up on my cartography,” Twilight informed them as she squinted down at the bottom of the letter, where the coordinates to their new destination were written. “I don’t even know where Ponyville is on a longitudinal scale, let alone this place.”
Twilight wasn’t usually the type to ask for help with academic matters, so her friends knew right away that this was a job for them. Of all the ponies present in the room, though, the one that Twilight probably least expected to jump at the chance first was Rainbow Dash. “Lemme see that for a sec,” the pegasus said suddenly, guiding the floating letter down onto Twilight’s desk and studying it intensely with her bottom lip caught between her teeth. A few moments later, she straightened herself up, nodded, and waved Twilight away without looking away from the paper. “No worries, Twi,” she said. “I gotcha covered.”
Rarity looked puzzled and Applejack looked skeptical, but Twilight was quite impressed with Dash’s display. “You know how to read coordinates, Rainbow?” she asked.
“Yep. Pretty much every pegasus does. Helps with flight patterns and stuff. Kinda just comes naturally. This’ll be easy.”
“Okay, then. I guess that’s settled too,” Twilight said. “Tomorrow morning sounds fine, Applejack. I’ll go ahead and pack in a little bit, and then try to get some rest tonight. I wonder if we should take the ballo…something wrong, Rainbow?”
“How is that…no, I’m fine,” Rainbow said quickly. “Just…just gimme a second.”
“Oh…kay. Anyway, the hot air balloon’s probably the safest way to go. If it is at the beach, we’ll definitely need something faster than the train to get there by tomorrow even-”
“What the…oh, come on!”
“Landsake, Rainbow, what’s all the fuss about?” Applejack said.
“There’s something wrong with these coordinates,” the cyan pegasus griped. “This place can’t be…this guy must’ve given us the wrong ones.”
“Maybe you’re just reading them wrong,” Rarity said helpfully.
“I’m not reading them wrong! You start at Ponyville, move down five degrees, go east about thirty, and…” Rainbow paused, slapped a forehoof between her eyes, and then sighed heavily and dropped all four legs on the ground again. “Yeah, I’m definitely reading them wrong,” she said matter-of-factly.
“Maybe this will help,” Twilight said. “Scoot over a little bit.”
Rainbow Dash cleared a space on the desk, and on top of it Twilight placed a giant physical map of Equestria and the lands beyond it. As a few stray inkwells hopped forward to hold the edges of the unfurled map in place, Rainbow immediately pulled up to hover next to Twilight, already chattering away about where she thought the coordinates were pointing and how she couldn’t figure out where the hangup she kept running into was. With Twilight and Rainbow muttering too quietly for anyone else to hear, the rest of their friends were forced to work up some patience and wait for them to surface again with a solid answer.
“See, right there!” Rainbow Dash shouted after forty-five seconds of increasingly frantic muttering. “How could that be right?”
“I don’t know,” Twilight replied with just as much confusion, “but it is. If these are the coordinates we’re supposed to use, then that’s where they’re pointing to…what on Earth is going on?”
The cacophony of responses was quick and predictably tense. “Whaddya mean, what’s goin’ on? Where is this place?”
“Is it on top of a mountain, miles from civilization?”
“Is it in a big mysterious jungle full of nasty, horrible creatures?”
“Beach, beach, beach! Please say beach!”
“No, it’s not in any of those places,” Twilight said. “In fact…”
She shared one last look with Rainbow Dash, then turned to face her friends. A look of puzzlement was the first thing they all saw on her face, but the emotion hidden behind that—and the one Spike would remember for years to come—was one of slowly budding fear.
“According to these coordinates, it’s approximately three hundred miles west of the Eternity Coast. The place this pony is telling to go to is right in the middle of the ocean.”
• • •
• • •
“Attention all passengers on Oceanus Airlines Flight 108. All pre-flight checks are complete, and in a few moments you will be escorted out onto the launching deck to begin the boarding process. Please make sure you have all your carry-on items with you, and your ticket ready to present to the agent at the gate. Thank you for your patience, and we hope you enjoy your flight. Bon voyage!”
I jerk awake as the announcement echoes through the terminal, the bubbly trill of the mare giving it still buzzing in my ears even after she stops talking, and within seconds my head is throbbing from the noise. Whoever first thought voice amplification spells were a good idea needs to have their head examined, and whoever feels the urge to use them so cheerfully after two hours of layover, doubly so. Especially when the best explanation we’ve been given for said layover is that the flight technicians can’t figure out which part of the zep the hydrogen is supposed to go into. And when my restless dream about building my own airship to take me to Haywaii alone was about to end happily ever after before Susie Smiles-A-Lot cranked the volume up and shattered it into a thousand beautiful pieces.
The rest of the passengers are already well on their way up to the gate by the time I force myself back up into a sitting position on the bench I conked out on, my eyes bleary and my back shrieking in complaint. For a moment, I almost get up and join them, but I blow off the idea almost as soon as it appears. It isn’t like it really matters who gets out the door first. We’ve all got at least another half-hour before we actually get on the zeppelin, because it’s going to take us all at least another half-hour to finish running the gauntlet of reporters, officials, and gawking pedestrians jockeying for position out on the launch pad. Because Celestia forbid that anypony miss the chance to watch eighty-three millionaires and one 22-year-old grease monkey from Rockton board the most momentous, incomparable, unequivocally extraordinary flight in the history of Equestria. Celestia forbid that Garnet just bring me out to Haywaii on a regular old sailing ship like the common, working earth pony he used to be. Celestia forbid that he hold his wedding back home with his family instead of dragging me out into the middle of Eternity’s Crossing to stand in for the whole clan.
I push a few stray mane hairs back behind my ear and straighten my glasses, and let out something between a groan and a sigh. All things considered, I don’t have any right to be complaining. I can’t even begin to imagine how much money went into getting me a spot on this flight, let alone into the five-star hotel I’ll be staying at once I hop back off it in about eight hours. “Nothing but the best for my family,” Garnet always says in situations like this, and it’s hard to imagine a different definition for “best” than what I have in store for me over the next few days. Such are the perks of sharing blood with the CEO and public persona of Brightshine Industries, I suppose. And such are the pleasures of the name “Brightshine Family Mining Company” being only a distant memory in a long-abandoned past.
“This is the final boarding call for Oceanus Airlines Flight 108, direct to Haywaii. All passengers on Oceanus Airlines Flight 108, your flight will be departing from Gate 1 in approximately thirty minutes.”
I blink hard one last time, and grab my saddlebag in my teeth before sliding off the bench. “Thirty minutes, she says,” I mutter as I swing my bag over my back and join the crowd at the gate. “Approximately.”
The rest of the terminal around me is virtually empty, but the mass of ponies in front of me is thick and impenetrable, and already starting to bottleneck where two velvet red ropes form a narrow path up to the gate itself. I stop behind a powder-blue unicorn chattering away to her coltfriend about how excited she is for the flight, and in seconds my ankles have tightened up and a tiny bonfire is burning in my chest. My dad always hated crowds, said that the only difference between a rockslide and an angry mob was that the rocks knew to stop at the bottom of the hill, and that’s one of the many things I inherited from him. Staring at the elaborately styled mane of the mare ahead of me doesn’t help, since all that does is remind me of how loose and ratty my own braid is, and staring at the floor isn’t much better, since that same mare’s gleaming white pumps just start the whole process over again. Then again, I’ll have to get used to that kind of thing sooner or later, won’t I? Garnet’s lovely young fiancée—you know, the one who’s about eight minutes older than me—will of course be expecting everypony sharing an island with her to be dressed in their most splendid finery for her upcoming nuptials, and will be simply gobsmacked if anypony were to attend…nay, to arrive in anything cheaper than a private yacht. Stars, she’ll probably even talk like that too. The last mare from Trottingham that Garnet tied the knot with sure did. Come to think of it, so did the last runway model.
It takes another ten minutes to get up to the gate, and by then I feel like I’ve had a woodpecker drilling into my skull for every single one of them. The mare in front of me has a voice like a squirrel—high, breathy, and prone to slip into a tittering half-giggle, half-whinny that seems specifically designed to make your ears bleed—and apparently her most favorite thing in the whole wide world is sharing that voice with everypony within earshot. Even after her companion gets their newly stamped tickets back from the pony who checked them and starts leading her down the walkway onto the launch pad, she still won’t shut up. Probably won’t be long before I’m not the only one wishing they’d packed some duct tape for the flight. Celestia help him, I think to myself as they disappear around the corner and I step up to the check-in desk. And Celestia help me if I end up sitting behind her.
“Ticket, pl-” the gate agent starts to say. Before she can finish, though, a loud cough from somewhere behind me cuts her off in mid-spiel, and I turn around just in time to watch myself get pushed gently to the side without so much as a “You’re in my way, numnutz.”
“Pardon us,” says a bubblegum-pink earth filly in a voice sweet as syrup, her dress gleaming with inlaid gems and her inflection making it sound like she’s scoffing with every syllable. “Very Important Ponies coming through.”
“Uh…Miss, I’m afraid you’ll have to wait a moment,” the gate agent stutters back. That makes two of us who can hardly believe what had just happened. “There’s a line-”
“I know there’s a line, Miss,” the filly snaps back with a dramatic roll of her sky-blue eyes. “That’s why we’re at the front of it.”
“Ma’am, these other ponies were here first…”
“Let me handle this, Diamond,” another voice cuts in suddenly, this one having half the bark and ten times the bite. After Diamond nods and steps aside with a smirk, an iron-gray earth filly with a braided silver mane, dainty blue glasses, and an intricately decorated spoon stamped on her flank floats up to the desk. “Pardon me if I’m mistaken,” she says, in a tone that makes it very clear who she thinks is in the wrong here, “but Oceanus Airlines policy states that first-class passengers are always allowed to board before the other sections. Has that policy changed?”
“Well, no, but…”
“Then what exactly is the problem?”
“But this flight is a special one,” the gate agent says. “All seats are considered to be in first-class.”
“What the hay is that supposed to mean?” asks the pink one impatiently.
“It means the line starts back there,” I can’t help but intone before the gate agent can get a word in edgewise.
In an instant, Diamond is on me like grease on a straight axle. “Was I talking to you?” she snarls, her furious eyes framed by a carefully fluffed mane with the color and consistency of grape-flavored toothpaste. There’s some part of the scenario that’s almost funny: this filly can’t be been more than seventeen or eighteen, and probably hasn’t seen a hard day’s work in her whole life. I could buck her snobby behind halfway to the moon and back if I had a mind to, and yet she’s the one standing there with that stupid fluffy mane trying to intimidate me.
And it’s working. I raise my eyebrows and do my best to send back a harrowing glare of my own, but it’s only a couple seconds before I’m the first to blink. I can’t keep my gaze from turning towards the ground after that.
“That’s what I thought,” Diamond sneers, strutting back over to her friend without a second glance in my direction. She’s a princess, all right, and the tiara stamped on her flank is the last thing anypony would need to confirm it. Stars above, she’s even wearing a tiara right now that matches her cutie mark to a T. A battle of wills with her would be like bringing a monkey wrench to a sword fight. I set my jaw and tilt my chin up casually towards the ceiling. She wants to board first? Fine, then. She can board first all she wants, for all I care. She can have the whole dang flight to herself, for all I care. She just needs to hurry up and take the opportunity, before I lose my patience and show her exactly how much time we take to deal with hubris back home in Rockton.
“I’m sorry, Miss, but you’re just going to have to wait,” the gate agent continues, picking up where I left off with only an ounce of my passion.
The gray filly nods without looking at her, then clicks her tongue and gives the agent a stare that would probably give even her smugly grinning friend a run for her money. “Who’s your supervisor?” she asks dismissively.
“I…beg your pardon?”
“Where is the pony who tells you what to do?”
That seems to be the final straw for the gate agent. “I report to the Lead Transportation Officer,” she informs her with narrowed eyes, “who reports to the Director of Operations for the Canterlot Airport, who reports to the Chief Executive Officer for Oceanus Airlines.”
“Who reports to the owner and primary stockholder of Oceanus Enterprises,” the filly adds as she pulls out some kind of ID card with the airline’s logo on the back. “Who just so happens to be my father.”
The agent’s jaw drops in the same instant her eyebrows shoot up, and I can see her eyes twitching back and forth as she reads whatever was written on the card. I almost speak up again, but my jaw is clenched too tightly to let any words slip out. “So if you don’t mind, we’ll be on our way now,” the gray filly finishes. The gate agent goes beet-red and mutters something to herself, then sighs and gives a conciliatory shrug. The look in her eyes probably bears more than a passing resemblance to the one in mine.
“Pleasure chatting with you,” Diamond says airily before glancing over at me one last time. After I don’t give her anything but a filthy look and the gift of silence, she shakes her head and laughs. “Nice glasses,” she whispers loud enough for everypony within twenty feet to hear it, and then she juts her chin out again and practically prances down the hallway leading out to the launch pad.
“I-I’m very sorry, Ma’am,” the gate agent stammers, still red as a beet and pretty well tongue-tied. “I don’t really have the authority-”
“It’s okay,” I say, turning away from the hallway before the itchy feeling in my hooves makes me do something I’ll regret. “I know the feeling.”
That gets a friendly smile out of the agent, if a brief one. “Is this your first time flying with us, Miss…” She pauses and looks down at the name printed on the ticket I just gave her. “Ruby?”
“’Fraid so,” I reply. “That your first time dealing with those two?”
“’Fraid so,” she mutters through a heavy sigh. “Enjoy your flight.”
I give her a tight-lipped nod and don’t waste time making sure she sees it. The crush of ponies I spent a quarter-hour wading through—and my encounter with two of them in particular—has already put me in a bad mood, and the gauntlet I’m about to run isn’t likely to improve it. Best to just get through this as quickly as possible, keep the teeth-grinding to a minimum, and board the zep before anypony remembers I’m supposed to be on it. Nothing too complicated, nothing that’ll draw too much attention. Just walk in a straight line, and don’t stop for anything.
The noise hits my ears long before I reach the end of the hallway, but the left turn about fifty feet in blocks me from seeing its source. I know perfectly well what it’s coming from, though, and by the time the first rays of afternoon sunlight begin to splay out across my hooves at the bottom of the ramp, I can feel it vibrating in every bone in my body. For a few moments, a familiar chill sets the hair on my neck standing on end, but I shut my eyes and will it away before it spreads beyond my maneline. Two minutes. All I need is two minutes. All I need to do is walk straight, not stop, and stay calm.
I step off the ramp and onto the launch pad, and in the helpless second when my unadjusted eyes are blinded by the sun, the chaos outside the terminal hits me like an anvil. A carpet spun of even redder velvet than the ropes in the terminal stretches all the way down to where the zeppelin is being prepped for flight, and on either side of the narrow path it forms is a veritable parted sea of shouting journalists and clicking cameras and, somewhere off in the distance, a full brass band playing the national anthem. A minute ago, I got cagey around less than a hundred snobby socialites who had butlers to hurt flies for them, and now it looks like the whole population of Canterlot wants to see them leave. Wants to see me leave.
They’re not looking for you, I tell myself. They’re not even looking at you. They’re just reporters. They want a few pictures of famous ponies and a cover story for tomorrow’s paper, and that’s it. Walk straight, don’t stop, and for the love of Celestia, stay calm.
The sunlight streams across my face, and the change in temperature from the air-conditioned airport sends a shiver crawling down my back. I don’t move.
You can do this, Ruby, a deep male voice murmurs inside my head. My dad always hated crowds, but he also sucked it up and dealt with them without a word of complaint, and he’d have sucked it up and dealt with this one if he were in my hooves today. He could do this. I can do this. I’m the daughter of Almandite Brightshine, and Brightshines don’t bow to anypony or anything but their own free will.
I take one step forward, then two more. The squirrel-voiced mare is ten feet up the path, squealing with delight at all the festivities around her and ballooning with pride every time a hoof reaches out to touch her. Twenty feet beyond that, Diamond and her friend are preening for the cameras, the former’s tiara pulsing and shimmering with every flash. All the way at the end of the walkway, I can just barely see the tuba player in the brass band, a lime-green earth pony whose cheeks puff out with every blast of his instrument. And to the left and right and all around me, shouted questions and bursts of conversation whip back and forth across the walkway and burrow their way into my skull, struggling to overpower the thoughts in my head.
“Are you concerned about running out of fuel?”
You can do this.
“Ooh, sweetheart, look at the band!”
“Any comment on the rumors that your flight will pass over the fabled lost city of Marelantis?”
“Darling, isn’t this grand?”
“Are you afraid that something may go wrong?”
“Are you afraid of heights?”
“Is there anything you’d like to say to the millions of ponies cheering you on?”
I chance a look up, and my heart nearly stops. The zeppelin is still hundreds of feet away and, now that I’m staring hopelessly up at it, almost seems to be shrinking. I blink, I shake my head, I suck in a breath so big I think my lungs are about to pop, but nothing changes: the zep just slips farther and farther away, and the blindingly noisy crowd just gets louder and louder. A pounding ache pops up behind my ears, then spreads out to the bridge of my nose before racing down to my hooves and all the way out to the base of my tail. I grit my teeth and take another step, and then the squirrel-voiced mare brays with laughter and my whole body ceases to function.
What are you doing?
“Just a moment of your time, sir…”
“…n’t this so exci…”
“…nd one quick photo for the Daily, ple…”
“Stay calm…” I whisper with no air in my lungs. “Stay calm…”
“…at is she doing over there?”
I can’t do this, Dad.
I want to swallow hard and get a grip on myself, except my tongue is stuck to my teeth and my throat won’t open no matter how badly I need to scream. I want to sprint off the launch pad and gallop all the way back to Rockton, except Slate and Shale are too busy with work to spend a week in Haywaii and Mom wouldn’t leave the house for all the bits in the world. I choke down a single shaky breath and tell myself that I am strong, that Dad was strong, that Dad never panicked and Dad never quit and Dad never let us know that anything was wrong, but the mares on the path are laughing and the newsponies in the wings are shouting and I can barely even stand under the weight of the perfume and the pressure and the sunlight and the noise.
Finally, I do the only thing I know how to do in situations like this: I close my eyes, let the voices around me fade from an uproar to a murmur to a hum, and in the blackness behind my eyelids summon an image of my basement. I see my workbench, see a small kerosene lamp and a clean white cloth and the baffling yet intimately familiar piles of gears, axles, and bolted joints on top of it, and I get to work. Unfettered by the boundaries of physics and reality, I draw three cogs together and set them all spinning in midair, and as more scraps of iron and aluminum float up to interlock with them in a hypnotizing ballet of perpetual motion, the tension seeps out of my back and I breath freely for the first time in days. Everypony has a happy place, and this one is mine: a cramped, dusty back room filled with machine bits, memories, and complete and total silence. In here, I am not the daughter of a miner, nor the sister of a CEO, nor the mindless plaything of ponies richer and more confident than me. In here, I have no name or face, just a table full of parts and an idea in my head of how to combine them into a whole greater than their sum. In here, friction and gravity are moot points, and everything runs smoothly and cleanly like it never could anywhere else. In here, there are no surprises.
I open my eyes before my impossible creation is finished, but by then it doesn’t matter. The world could be ending two inches from my nose, but between my ears everything is calm, mechanical, and under control. In a few minutes, the serenity will wear off and I’ll remember again how many ponies are looking at me right now, but in this fleeting moment, for once in the last of a whole string of miserable days, I am at peace. Inside my mind, I am happy. Inside my mind, I am home.
“Miss! Excuse me, Miss!”
It takes me a few seconds to realize this reporter is talking to me, and about double that time to actually turn my head and face him. “How does it feel to be a passenger on the first trans-oceanic dirigible flight in Equestrian history?” he said
I watch the brown-furred, blond-maned, bright-eyed pegasus colt placidly, waiting to see how long he’ll keep thinking I’m considering his question. Just as the look on his face begins to sour and the determination starts to drain out of his gaze, I nod purposefully and answer him.
“Loud,” I say. The pegasus blinks, a camera bulb flares somewhere behind him, and by the time the bulb cools down and its afterglow fades away, I’m already halfway to the ship he was so anxious to know how it felt to board.
Now that my vision is clearer and the pain in my head has died down to a dull ache, the zeppelin doesn’t seem very far away at all. In fact, I can almost see the whole thing now. I push myself into a trot, pass right on by Diamond and completely resist the urge to check whether that sneer was pointed at me, dodge around a regal-looking unicorn with a flowing white mane and squeeze through a gap in his entourage, and then there she is: the airship Elysium, in all her glory. Maybe the rest of my trip might turn into the tropical vacation from Hades, but at least I get to ride out to it on this beauty of a vessel.
And she is a beauty: four hundred eighty-five feet from tip to tail, built on a skeleton of twelve state-of-the-art light-alloy rings interconnected by hundreds of hoof-welded girders, and covered by weather proofed, magically-treated canvas that tapers to a rounded stub at the bow of the ship and a sharp point flanked by four matching horizontal and vertical fins at the stern. Even at a flight weight of over 235 tons, she’ll be kept aloft with ease by just fourteen hydrogen-filled gas cells that take up the entire fore end of the craft, and powered by a trio of Maybuck VL-2 12-cylinder arcane combustion engines welded onto her stern, each of which is capable of maintaining a maximum thrust of 2650 wingpower for six hours straight, can produce an average flight speed of seventy miles per hour for twice that time, and has a max tested speed of eighty-two. She’s fast, she’s sleek, she’s the biggest magically powered vehicle ever created by equinekind, and I’ll bet a year and a half’s pay that not a single one of the high society ponies behind me have any idea. On that note, they probably don’t see anything wrong with the whole dang thing being painted a nauseating shade of salmon pink either.
But in this case, at least, their ignorance of their own luck doesn’t have to affect me. About twenty-five minutes from now, the Elysium will set off on her maiden voyage, and one of the eighty-four seats inside its twenty-five hundred square foot gondola will be reserved just for me. The thought isn’t enough to negate all the other unsavory bits of my impromptu journey to Haywaii, but it’s enough to make me forget about them for a few precious moments.
I was definitely one of the last ponies to exit the terminal, but as I step onto the Elysium’s boarding ramp and flash my ticket again to the flight attendant standing at the top, I realize that I’m the first to actually get on the ship. Well, I can imagine much worse things than having a ship the size of a Manehattan skyscraper all to myself for a little while. In any case, I’ll have a minute or two to chill out and mull over the events of the last few minutes, which isn’t something I really want to do as much as something I know is more or less guaranteed to happen anyway. My brain’s not the type that forgives and forgets easily, and its least favorite pony to go through that process with is the one whose noggin it resides inside. That’s another trait I inherited from Dad. Unfortunately, I also got his lack of patience. I hardly even have a chance to settle back into my seat before I’m staring out the window and fighting off the urge to grind my forehooves into my eyes and cry. Isn’t being emotionally imbalanced fun?
It isn’t even like this sort of thing hasn’t happened before. My whole life has been a string of one emotional breakdown after another: losing a balloon at the fair when I was three, scraping my knee at recess in third grade after somehow managing to strike out playing kickball, finding out Garnet was consolidating our family’s business into a corporation and refusing to speak to him until…no, wait, I’m still not speaking to him. The list goes on and on. And now I can add that last encounter with the reporter to the mix.
A new knot twists into existence in my stomach, and I lay my head gently back against my seat before I give in to the compulsion to throw it forward into my hooves. Stars above, what was I even talking about a minute ago? Hay if I knew. Hay if I was even fully on this planet when I brought it up. “What’s it like out here?” the newspony asks, and what do I say back? “Loud.” Way to provide some scintillating commentary there, Ruby. Really cleared the whole thing up for him, I’m sure. And just to check if my memory serves me right…yep, that was a camera shutter’s click I heard just before I walked away. So he has pictures of me too. Stars, I can see the front page now: a full-color lead-in shot of a short, murky gray earth mare with a frumpy maroon mane and rusty red eyes hidden behind thick black-rimmed glasses, and a headline above that reads in big bold letters: ELYSIUM TAKES OFF ON FIRST TRANS-OCEANIC VOYAGE, PASSENGER DESCRIBES HISTORIC EVENT AS “LOUD”. Fan-flipping-tastic.
Well, there goes that good mood, I intone inside my head as I lose my internal battle to keep my forehoof off the bridge of my nose. After a heavy sigh and one more glance out the window, I end up looking down at the watch strapped onto the ankle of my left foreleg. The watch is another gift from my father, and one of the few physical ones. It’d been in his family for generations, going all the way back to when his great-grandfather moved to Equestria from Germaneigh, and he wore it every day of his life until I was about nine years old, when it suddenly stopped working after a long shift at the mine. I always liked tinkering with things even back then, though, and I was also at that tender young age when curiosity and self-restraint hadn’t begun to share a bed inside my mind yet. So while Dad cursed his luck in the kitchen and Mom made dinner while pretending to understand why he was so upset, I swiped the broken watch and took it down to my dad’s workshop in the basement, where I stayed up the whole night poring over an old watchmaker’s manual I’d found in the library down the street and piecing it back together cog by tiny cog.
My long-term memory’s not the best in the world, but I don’t have any trouble remembering exactly what happened that night. Dad found me at four in the morning just as I finished putting the last screw into the back of the casing, and I’ll never forget the look I saw come onto his face right then: at first he’d been angry that I was messing around with his tools, but when he saw what I’d done with his watch and heard the faint but steady ticking coming from its hands, the corners of his mouth softened and the wrinkles around his eyes flattened out, and then his whole face tightened up as if he’d pulled a cord to cinch it to his skull. At that moment, I knew he was more proud of me than he’d ever been of anypony in his whole life. It was several years before I knew it really meant he was trying not to cry.
Halfway blind from lack of sleep and all the way cross-eyed from how long I’d held my nose an inch above the workbench, I grabbed the watch’s strap in my teeth and wearily offered it up to my father. For a moment, he just lifted it up with the edge of his hoof and kept that same expression on his face, but then he nodded ever so slightly and sat down on the workshop floor, motioning for me to do the same. Once I did, he took my forehooves gently between his own and, while I watched with wide eyes and a pounding heart, somehow managed to smile without ever moving his lips.
“A long time ago, when I was just about your age, your grandpa took me out to our mine and told me that whatever I could dig up inside, I could keep,” he said in his rough, rumbling voice, brushing his hooves over the watch as he spoke but never looking away from me. “It was the first time I’d ever been allowed inside. I thought I’d walk out that night with more gems and crystals than I fit in ten saddlebags. Well, I chipped away at those rocks the whole day long, and I didn’t find nothing but slate rock and worn-out coal streaks. By nightfall, I was tired, thirsty, grubby, and just about ready to never set hoof in that dusty ol’ hole again. But just as I was turning to leave, I saw something glinting in the corner of my eye. It was a gemstone, a dull little red thing no bigger than a peanut, the smallest one I’d ever seen. Any other miner worth his salt would’ve left it alone, but I chipped it out and took it with me. Something about it seemed special, even then. Like something about that rock and I was meant to be.
“When your grandpa saw that little gem sitting there in my hoof, his eyes lit up like the Summer Solstice, and he took it away and cleaned it and shined it until suddenly, it wasn’t dull anymore. It was a gem, like one you’d see hanging from a gold chain in a store window down in Manehattan or Canterlot. I’d found a gem, all by myself, without anypony helping me or telling me what I should or shouldn’t have done.”
He looked down at the watch again, then maneuvered it between his hooves until it was resting on top of my left forehoof. “That was my day your grandpa gave me this watch, the day he said I’d done all the growing up he could help me with. And that was the day he told me about where I got my name, how he found his first gemstone when he was my age too, and decided right then and there that he was gonna grow up and get married and have foals, and his little colt would have a name just like that gem: Almandite. And so I knew too, right then and there, that I was gonna do the same thing. Except I knew that I wasn’t gonna have a colt, but a filly. A beautiful little filly just as tiny as can be, with a tiny red mane that glinted in the sunlight and a tiny flame in her heart that’d never go out, that’d keep shining and shining just like my little gem.”
He pulled my hoof up to his chest, and with a gentleness that had baffled me even then, fastened the watch around my ankle. When he spoke again, there was more emotion in his words than I think he ever showed in the rest of his life combined. “You’re a very special pony, Ruby,” he murmured as he pulled me close to his chest, “and you’re gonna do great things. Someday, Ruby, you’re gonna change the world. And I hope you never forget that. I hope you never forget how special you are.” The last thing I remember after that is falling asleep in his lap as he ran his forehoof over my mane, and a warming sensation of movement as he carried me up to my bed.
I don’t know about the rest of it, but my own world certainly changed that night. I noticed the mark stamped on my flank while I was brushing my teeth the next morning, and from then on I spent every single day counting the seconds until I could get back into the basement to take apart a wagon or a toaster or a table lamp, every experiment driven by a small silver cog wheel on my backside with a brilliant red ruby set into its center. Maybe that talent makes me special, and maybe some of the things I used that talent for later on could be looked at as great, but as for changing the world…well, even my dad couldn’t be right about anything. I have his workshop and I have my machines, and I’m perfectly happy with things being just the way they are. That’s all there is to it. That’s why I’m moody today. That’s why I was moody yesterday too. And the day before that. And the day before that.
And now I’m depressed again. I let another sigh escape my chest, and refocus on my watch. I’ve been on the zep for three minutes, which means it’s been about eight since I left the terminal. So that means I have about another twenty-two minutes before our seven-hour flight to Haywaii gets officially underway. Be still, my obnoxiously indecisive heart.
I spend another minute or two pony-watching out the window, but you can only see so many kisses blown to so many starstruck fans before your gag reflex becomes too much to handle. I tossed a few snacks and a couple books into my bag this morning to stave off the boredom pangs once the flight gets underway, but I was really hoping to save those until at least the two-hour mark. Breaking into the Apollo Bars before we even leave the ground seems awfully weak-willed, and I’m too fast a reader to dive into either book below ten thousand feet. Especially when I already got halfway through the first one during the carriage ride into Canterlot.
Then again, my third best friend behind my welding torch and whoever invented the magnetic screwdriver is chocolate, and intestinal fortitude has never really one of my strong suits. For that matter, neither has patience. I bite my lip once just to make sure my subconscious knows what it’s doing is wrong, and then I snatch a candy bar and my first book up out of the saddlebag beneath my seat, picking up right where I left off last night as the sweet taste of caramel spreads across my tongue.
Over the next ten minutes, the faltering trickle of ponies boarding the zeppelin grows into a steady stream, but I hardly see anything of them but the tips of their hooves as they walk past my row. Every so often, something unique enough to catch my attention worms its way through my senses: a whiff of generously applied perfume, an unexpected burst of laughter, a sudden increase in temperature when Diamond and her friend come abroad. Beyond that, though, I keep my nose in my book and my mind tuned off the outside world, and on to the much more fascinating one spilling out of the pages I have balanced on my legs. The various scents and sounds that pass over and around me are only fleeting distractions, including the flickering shadows that wash over my book as more and more passengers trot by. Even when one of the shadows stops right next to me and tints my whole seat dark, I still don’t feel the need to pay it any mind. It’s only once that shadow starts talking that I can’t keep up the act any longer.
“The evil of the world is made possible by nothin’ but the sanction you give it.”
The dramatic pulse of the scene playing out in my imagination stutters and flatlines, and I look up to find a yellow-furred, green-tailed, and impressively fat earth stallion staring down at me. He shoots me a smile that shows a few too many teeth to avoid falling over the “creepy” line, and then motions down at my lap with a pudgy forehoof as he wedges himself into the aisle seat next to mine.
“Always hated that book,” he remarks once he gets settled in, leaning over a bit in the process so he can pretend to read over my shoulder. “Had to read it for school once, back in ancient times. My teacher wouldn’t shut up about it, kept quotin’ that line like a dang mantra. Me, I was too busy sellin’ Party Pops outta my desk to give two hoots about ‘Ponies’ States’ and whatnot. ‘Who is John Colt?’ Who the hay cares?”
The stallion pauses to take in a breath, and I lean back against the window as he lets it back out. If his paunch couldn’t stop a speeding bullet, his breath would do the trick in a heartbeat. “Where you’d say you go to school again, honey?”
“I didn’t,” I answer stiffly as I look back down at my lap. “And I’m not reading this for school.”
The stallion’s surprise comes out as a little harrumph and a small shake of his head. “How ‘bout that,” he says. “Already graduated, and readin’ for kicks on top’a that. Well, to each his own, I suppose. Or her own, as the case may be.” I nod without looking up, so the hoof that suddenly materializes right overtop of Chapter Twelve shocks me enough to get my attention again.
“Golden Garter,” he announces cheerfully, sweeping the short spikes in his mane back against his scalp with the same hoof he soon realizes I’m not going to shake. “I’m in the advertisin’ business, mostly, but I do a few other things on the side. Consultin’, negotiatin’, fraternizin’, things’a that nature. I’m supposed to meet some bigwig architect out on Mau’u, draw up a contract or three for his new clothing line or something. Can you imagine? An architect wantin’ to design clothes! What’s he gonna do, stitch building codes into a dress hem?”
Golden wheezes and shudders with laughter at his joke, and I briefly wonder whether banging my head against a reinforced gondola window will be enough to knock me out. “Ah, but for hay’s sake, I’m prattlin’ on about m’self again,” he coughs once he’s finished patting himself on the back. “What’s your angle for bein’ here? What d’you do?”
It takes a few seconds to realize I don’t have a credible lie to feed this guy. “I build things,” I eventually tell him.
“No kiddin’? What kinda things?”
“The patented kind.”
I see his next question coming from a mile away. “You got a patent?”
“No, the seat cushion does,” I reply in a deadpan. “I just handle the paperwork.”
Golden grins and chucks me in the shoulder, and I try to act like that doesn’t make me want to go crawling up the walls. “Shoot, I knew you were pulling my tail!” he guffaws. “C’mon, don’t be shy now. Pretty filly like you must be showing off for somepony. You an actress or somethin’?”
Now I’m the one who can’t help but laugh, although in my case it’s mostly just to keep myself from socking him in the jaw. “Don’t I wish…,” I mutter, turning a page with more force than necessary and hoping the message I mean by it is clear.
“Coulda fooled me,” Golden goes on without missing a beat. “You got the look’a one down pat. Like, you could be one’a those little sidekick ponies that’s always crackin’ jokes and gettin’ kidnapped an’ stuff.” He pauses, and eventually it begins to dawn on him what he just said. “One’a the nice-lookin’ ones, I mean,” he clarifies. “Not the ugly ones.”
I snap my book shut and turn to face him, and for about three seconds I manage to hold off the urge to inform Mr. Garter exactly where he can stick his next insightful comment. Mercifully, though, at the end of those three seconds, I’m saved. Not by Celestia coming down from on high or Mr. Garter suddenly growing a brain in his head bigger than the one beneath his stomach, but by a small, almost imperceptible cough behind him that sounds for all the world like a chorus of angels to me. I flash Golden the shortest forced smile in the history of Equestria and lean way forward in my seat to look around him, and what I see standing in the aisle behind him is just about the most beautiful thing I’ve seen all day.
Okay, not really. I’m a little prone to exaggeration when I get desperate enough. To be fair, though, the colt who just cleared his throat and caught both my and Golden’s eye isn’t that bad-looking anyway. He’s a unicorn about my age, with silvery-blue fur and a navy mane highlighted by a little loose strand of hair that hangs under his horn. His nose is a bit on the small side and his lips are too tightly pressed together to get an idea of what they might look like curved into a smile, but his eyes are a deep, elusive shade of green that seems to catch the ambient light in the gondola just like an emerald would. I can’t quite see his hind legs behind the plain brown saddlebags slung across his back, but the rest of him looks pretty well-built, and the little tuft of slightly darker fur sticking out of his chest is a surprisingly nice final touch to the whole image. All things considered, he’s actually kind of cute. And he’s standing right in front of me, waiting for an opportunity to speak. On second thought, maybe exaggeration is warranted sometimes.
“’Scuse me,” the colt says. He has a nice voice too: strong and lively with a bit of a smoky quality to it, but also carrying the unmistakable trappings of a Fillydelphia accent. Make that really cute, actually. “Sorry if I’m interrupting, but you’re in my seat.”
My heart leaps into my throat, and the prospect of not having to spend seven hours within hooves’ reach of Golden is only one of the reasons. “Beg pardon?” Golden says testily.
“I’m pretty sure I know where my seat is, buddy,” Golden continues.
“Well, actually I-”
“What, you think I can’t read a ticket right?”
“No, I mean-“
“Well, I’ll tell you one thing…”
One thing quickly turns into seven, and so for about thirty seconds both the colt and I are subjected to the laundry list of reasons why Mr. Garter thinks the first of us is an idiot. Part of me is just about ready to shove the big lug out of his seat myself, but another part of me is terrified of what that might lead to. On the one hoof, I’d get to spend the whole flight sitting next to this new colt, whose sudden tendency to chew on his lip when he was nervous is putting him a pair of coveralls short of being a certified dream. On the other, this flight will last seven hours, and the total length of all my interesting stories and anecdotes adds up to about twenty minutes. What am I supposed to talk to this colt about? Do I even want to talk to him? Has he even realized I’m here yet?
Judging by how he’s still trying to get a word in edgewise with Golden, probably not. “Look, can you just…”
“Just what?” Golden interrupts again.
Oh Celestia, just get him out of here.
“You weren’t what?”
Oh Celestia, don’t let him leave.
The colt glares, and pauses to take in a deep breath. Oh Celestia, please just-
“I wasn’t even talking to you,” he says, just before looking back at me and raising a forehoof to point in my direction. “Her. You, I mean. You’re in my seat.”
“What?” Golden says after a long silence.
What?, my mental image of Princess Celestia sputters.
“What?” I half-shout before I can stop myself.
“Yes. You. Are in my seat. 12C,” the colt goes on, with the tone of somepony who’s running on borrowed patience as it is. “Please move.”
I don’t know what it is exactly that sets me off. Maybe it’s because this guy was more civil with the jerk next to me than he’s being with me now. Maybe I was about finished deciding I did want to spend seven hours sitting next to this colt. Maybe this last turn of events just fried what little portion of my brain wasn’t golden-brown with stress already.
“Please?” the colt asks. No, wait, it isn’t any of that. It’s the fact that I’m old enough to read a ticket and know where my freaking seat is on an eighty-four passenger zep, and that I have officially had it with ponies treating me otherwise while I just stand by and take it like a coward.
“You’re not in the wrong seat either, are you?” the colt says in an undertone.
“No, as a matter of fact, I’m not,” I reply with the same level of civility, snapping my book shut as I do. Golden’s eyebrows shoot up, so I take that as meaning I’m making a strong impression so far. “I’m pretty sure I can read a ticket right too.”
The colt’s hoof drops heavily to the floor, and between the tightness in his jaw and the long, deep breath he takes in, he looks for all the world like he’s about to go postal. A small part of my conscience is already berating the rest of me for acting even worse than Golden did, but at this point every word it gets in is like a single bucket of water thrown on a forest fire. “Okay, can somepony explain to me what the hell I’m doing wrong?” he growls with his eyes closed and his head quivering with frustration. “I get on the plane, I get to my seat and find someone sitting in it, and they act like I’m the idiot when I ask them to move. Where is the disconnect here, exactly?”
“Probably right around the part where you thought this was your seat, genius,” I growl right back.
“Oh, good. Now I’m the one who can’t read my ticket. How original.”
“Hey, here’s an original thought for you: why don’t you go find another fricking seat? We’re underbooked as it is.”
“Are we now? Well, by all means, take your pick, then.”
The colt’s eyes widen for a split second before crumpling into a look black enough to stain linen, and I’m pretty sure Golden actually swears under his breath. Of course, that may be because I’m halfway in his lap by this point, for how far I’ve leaned towards the colt standing next to him. We’re nearly nose-to-nose by the time a fourth voice finally forces us apart.
“Excuse me, sir,” a perky young mare in an ocean-blue flight attendant vest says, hesitating a bit once she notices me off to the side. “Is there a problem?”
The colt leans back into the aisle without retreating from our silent staring war, then glances at the flight attendant just long enough to acknowledge her butting in. “She’s in my seat,” he says icily, his eyes still locked coldly with mine. Out of the corner of my eye, I see the attendant look curiously from him to me and then back to him again, before clearing her throat and extending her hoof.
“May I see your ticket, please, sir?” she asks. Finally, the colt turns his head completely away from me, but his eyes start darting back in my direction the instant he’s done fishing his ticket out of the front pocket of his saddlebag.
“Game over,” he mutters too quietly for anyone but to hear it but me. Before I can respond, the attendant’s lips twitch and narrow into a frown.
“Mm-hmm?” he hums airily to the attendant, who is holding his ticket with a quizzical expression on her face.
“Sir, this mare is sitting in seat 12C.”
The colt glances back at me, and I can tell he was holding back a smirk. “Yes, she is, isn’t she?”
“Well, quite frankly, I don’t see what the problem is, sir.”
A little bit of bluster drains out of the colt’s eyes. “What d’you mean, you don’t…”
“Sir, your ticket has you in seat 21C.”
And now the rest of it is gone in half the time. “Are you kidding m…” he begins to sputter, but once he snatches his ticket back from the attendant and reads the line she’s pointing at, his mouth slams shut right in the middle of his complaint, and his face goes pale beneath his fur. Once he hears several mares and a couple stallions snickering in the seats behind him, that white hue darkens into a brilliant scarlet red. And after that…
I couldn’t help it. He had it coming. I wasn’t in my right mind at the time, or that day, or that month, or that year. I can spit out all number of excuses after the fact, but nothing I tell myself later on changes the reality that it’s my mouth that opens and my lips that purse, and my decision that this colt won’t leave without me having the last word. Without me further humiliating a pony who’s probably having just as bad a day as I am. Without me flashing a grin and letting out a long, low sympathetic groan that would’ve sent me diving for this guy’s throat if he did the same to me.
The colt flinches as if I’ve smacked him across the face, and when he opens his eyes again the look of pure, boiling hatred in his eyes cuts straight through me and shakes me all the way down to my core. Just moments ago, I thought those eyes looked like flawless emeralds sparkling in the sun, but now all I can see are dark pupils and glassy irises and a blackness that wants nothing more than to swallow me whole and leave nothing behind but a messy pile of bones and fur. Now all I can see is my own reflection, staring back at me with all the pain and hurt and disgust I’ve lived with longer than anypony could ever deserve.
The colt only stands there for a couple seconds before hiking his bags up around his shoulders and stalking off down the aisle, but I feel his gaze boring into me even after I fall back against my seat and stare blindly out towards the window in front of mine. Even after my shock crystallizes into shame and then snowballs into piercing, searing hatred for myself. Even after the gondola starts to spin and my head begins to throb, and the window in front of me blurred into a dim, shapeless grey blob.
“Buck me to the moon, you don’t screw around, do ya?” Golden laughs in between relieved whistles. “Boy, your coltfriend must have one hell of a…uh, hey, you all ri-”
“I’m fine,” I tell him through my teeth, my throat raw and my hoof propped up on my temple so he can’t see the warm wet beads sliding down my leg and dripping into my lap. I close my eyes tight and lean hard against my window, and don’t look up again until nearly an hour later, after our seatbeats are fastened and the launch pad is cleared and my stomach dives into my feet as a cacophony of cheers and complimentary champagne fill the whole zeppelin. I don’t see the spires of Canterlot painted black with the shadow of its greatest achievement, nor do I see the flight attendants come by with the drink carts, nor do I see Mr. Garter chug down however many eight-ounce bottles of malt liquor it takes to down a three-hundred-pound stallion in the advertisin’ business. I don’t see anything except the backs of my eyelids, and a dark, filthy workshop with broken and bent parts strewn all over the place and the scent of decay tainting everything inside it.
I open my eyes once Golden’s snores smooth out into a constant rhythm, and close them quickly once I see how far the twilit expanse of violet-gold water spreads in all directions outside, and how many miles it seems to be below me. In the middle of the first of what will surely be many vertigo trips, I hear a spell crackle into life at the front of the cabin, and my hunch about what it’s going to be used for turns out to be exactly right.
“Fillies and gentlecolts, Oceanus Airlines would like to thank you once again for flying with us this evening,” the perky flight attendant says, her voice amplified enough to reach the back row of seats but thankfully not in a deafening way this time. “It’s currently 6:45 P.M., we’re approximately one hour into our flight, and if you look out your windows now, you may catch a glimpse of the Eternity Coastline directly below us. This moment marks the first time in history that anypony has traveled beyond this easternmost point of the Equestrian landmass in a passenger-class dirigible. For the rest of our flight to the Haywaiian islands of Mau’u, Ka’ui, and Kilio, we will be traveling over approximately three hundred and seventy-five miles of open ocean, with an estimated time of arrival of 9:42 P.M. local time. The entire Elysium crew offers its gratitude and its congratulations, and we hope you choose Oceanus Airlines for all your future travel needs. Enjoy your flight.”
I hear everything the attendant said, but every single word passes right on through me like there’s nothing between my ears to stop it, like I’m just a hollow shell of a pony being blown wherever the wind chooses to take her. That’s certainly what I feel like at the moment: not angry or even really upset anymore, just empty. I feel like someone stuck a straw in me and sucked out all the energy I could’ve used to dry my face or rub my eyes, or even lift my forelegs off the arms of my seat. I feel tired. No, on second thought, I feel exhausted.
Always this. I always do this exact same thing. I get stressed out, things start to pile up on my shoulders and I bottle up my emotions for days and weeks on end, and then one day some little insignificant thing is the final piece of straw that snaps me clean in two, and I just zero in on whoever’s unlucky enough to be close by and rage at them until there’s nothing left inside of me to throw in their face. Sometimes, it’s just an innocent bystander, who more often than not gets indignant herself. Usually, it’s my mother, who never fights back and somehow makes it all worse because of it. Two and a half years ago, it was my older brother and second-best friend Garnet, and now he’s paying my way out to Haywaii when I’ve spent all my time since doing everything in my power to make sure I never saw him again. And here I am, sitting in a zeppelin, just going with the flow and trying to act like nothing ever happened. Just a hollow shell, filling and emptying and floating through life like a shadow, like the ghost of whatever it was I used to be.
I rest my head back against the window, and the numbness building in my brain spreads through my chest and into my legs and hooves. As my breathing slows and fatigue begins to overtake me, I find myself sluggishly thinking back to that night in the basement so long ago, when my father placed his hooves over mine and gave me the watch that’s still ticking on my ankle even now. Is this what you were thinking about, Dad? Is this what you always knew I’d be, what you knew I always was? I snort under my breath and force the memory away again. He hadn’t known whether I’d grow up to be an inventor or a businessmare, whether I’d turn into a strong, dependable worker or a miserable, spiteful lump of selfishness and fear. He hadn’t known what my cutie mark meant when he was the first one to ever see it. He’d never known anything his whole life but working hard and having jack-all to show for it. All that time I spent idolizing him, all those nights I wished I could be just like him, when he was nothing more than a backwater, third-generation two-bit miner: soft-spoken, mild-mannered, simpleminded, and mortal. Just like me. Just like Garnet. Just like everypony on this whole moonforsaken zep.
Well, good for you, Ruby, I think as the farthest corners of my mind began to shut themselves off. You finally figured it out. You feel better now? No, actually, I feel like I want to crawl in a hole and sleep for a week, thanks, and I’m about to get started on that now. Well, isn’t that proactive, I tell myself just before I lose consciousness. Isn’t that special…
Special. That’s what it always comes down to, isn’t it? Everypony wants to be special. Everypony wants to believe the ponies they love are special, when really all we are is an improbable combination of electrochemical impulses and faulty parts, with our expiration dates already stamped on our casings before we’re even born. We can do little things to buy some time, skimp and swindle our way into a few extra days here and there, but in the end there’s only one way out of this world, and that’s when the gears in your head stop turning and the pumps in your chest can’t kick hard enough to spin them around again. It’s not a matter of fairness or mercy, just cold, unrelenting inevitability. Nopony is above it. Nopony is invincible. Nopony is special.
My dad told me I was special. My dad told me I was gonna do great things. My dad told me someday I would change the world.
And you know what the worst part is?
He was right.
• • •
A 2K Manehattan Production
• • •
• • •
(click the title to move on)
• • •
“My friends and I all learned an important lesson this week:
never judge a book by its cover.”
- Twilight Sparkle
At the exact moment I become conscious, the first thing I feel is cold. All around me, the air cuts into my skin, pushing straight through into my chest and stomach and chilling me to the bone. It’s dark too, the blackness flowing over and around me like a thick woolen blanket. And yet the cold isn’t absolute, and the darkness isn’t complete: dull patches of red and orange light flash in the distance now and then, each one accompanied by a gentle gust of wind and a brief rush of heat.
I try to blink, but my eyes are already closed. A blurry squint is all I can manage before the biting chill of the cold strikes me blind again. Now I notice the noise too, a heavy, irregular thumping noise like somepony is beating on a thick wooden door. A shudder runs down my back, and I squeeze my eyes shut tighter still. Freezing. The air is freezing. Why is it so cold? Why can’t I move my legs right? Where am I?
I open my mouth to call out for help, and the bitter taste of salt floods my senses. Wet. The air is wet. My face is wet. I stretch out for something to grab hold of, and find myself swimming through open air. I’m floating. No, not floating. Weightless.
Cold. Weightless. The air is wet.
I open my eyes and kept them open a second longer this time. Another burst of orange explodes in the distance, too far away and too indistinct to tell what it is.
The air is water.
Eyes shut again, mouth open again. Salt. Burning. Something is burning.
Burning inside me. Burning inside my chest. I can’t move. I can’t think.
My eyes shoot open, just in time to see a white beaded string float down in front of me, followed by a brown rectangular lump. A necklace of pearls. A saddlebag. My lungs heave and contract, and orange and red flashes light up the air. Light up the water. Can’t move. Can’t think. Can’t breathe.
Stars above, I can’t breathe.
My mind clears in an instant, and I kick backwards just in time to dodge a roaring black mass as it plummets down into the bottomless black void below me. I whip my head around, and my entire chest seizes up as white-hot panic flares up inside it. Those aren’t red and orange lights; those are explosions. That mass wasn’t black; it was bright salmon pink.
I couldn’t think before, but now there isn’t even time to try. A muffled cry punches out of my throat, and I throw all four legs into a mad paddle for the shimmering gray canopy overhead that I know is the surface. Around me, more debris sinks towards the bottom: suitcases, pink chunks of fuselage, misshapen black blobs I can’t bring myself to look at. I need to go faster. I need to breathe.
By now, I can only moan in terror, the scream stuck in my throat slowly dying away for lack of air to feed into it. The water is fighting me, tugging me down with slimy tentacles of sleep that pull at my legs and creep into the corners of my eyes. Go faster. Kick harder. Survive. Breathe. The surface is twenty feet away, now ten, and then the blackness sweeps in and I’m blind once more. My legs go numb, the cold stabs my heart, the last of my breath escapes in a cloud of bubbles…
…and I break the surface as water sprays from my mouth towards an empty night sky. My sight rushes back as I suck in a huge, blissful breath, and I nearly slip under again before all my limbs start working properly and I grab onto a big hunk of something or other floating nearby. For a minute or two, I just stay where I am, not moving and certainly not thinking, just bobbing up and down on my makeshift raft and reveling in the taste of fresh air on my tongue. I look up from the water once I build up the energy to lift my head, and what I see once I do takes me a long, heart-stopping moment to even process as being real.
The sea is dyed the same shade of ugly jet black as the sky, and smouldering on top of it is a floating wasteland of twisted sheet metal and rippling orange fire. The air is thick with the smell of smoke and ozone, and it isn’t until another blistering blast of flames streaks across the water to my left that I figure out where the second smell is coming from. There’s an arcane combustion engine around here somewhere, and it’s leaking its power source right into the fire. I need to get out of here before it drifts in my direction, before that fire starts streaking right towards…
Arcane combustion. Sheet metal. Bright salmon pink. The puzzle pieces start clicking together in my mind far too quickly for me to force them all apart, and suddenly the silence around me might as well be filled with screams. It wouldn’t be this quiet unless there was nothing left to make any noise. Unless everypony else is already dead.
Denial is my last hope for salvation, so I cling to it for all I’m worth. This is a dream, I shout inside my head. This is a horrible nightmare. I’ll wake up in an hour and we’ll be hitching up in Mau’u, and I’ll get off the zep and go see Garnet and everything will be just like it’s supposed to b‒
I’m staring down at the scrap of metal beneath me to keep from looking at anything else around me, and that’s the only reason I see it. But once I do, there is no denial anymore, no last refuge of sanity and hope. The golden letters on the fuselage below me are scratched, dented, and almost flash-burned out of existence, but I can still read them no matter how blurry my eyes get, no matter how hard I try to look away afterwards: in dramatic bold print right between my outstretched forehoof, the word Elysium stares up at me, the name of the pride and joy of all Equestria still glinting under a starless sky.
“This is real,” I whisper with lips too numb to even form the words right. “This is real.”
I’m paralyzed, as much as the cold as by the shock coursing through my body. I need to move, but to where? There’s no safe place to move to. We were the first airship in history to ever fly this far out to sea. It would take a search-and-rescue weeks to even find us, and I don’t have weeks. I have a tiny scrap of fuselage to hold on to, and an overturned hourglass counting the seconds until my organs shut down, until cold and hunger turn my body to ice and send it sinking helplessly down into the deep to never be seen again.
I grind my head against my hooves and moan again, but even sinking my teeth into the skin of my foreleg doesn’t chase away the thought of freezing, of drowning, of water rushing into my lungs and filling my body and purging every last trace of me, of Ruby. I’ve read adventure books before about daring heroes and heroines who stare death in the face and laugh, but right now my teeth are chattering too hard to let out so much as a whimper. I’m not like that. I’m not brave, or strong, or noble of heart. All I am is small, and cold, and afraid, and alone.
Alone. The word sizzles like fire in my mind, branding itself onto the front of my brain and echoing around me in the vast, terrible silence of the night. Alone. There were over a hundred ponies on the Elysium when it took off from Manehattan, and out of all of them I am the only one still breathing. How many of those sinking shapes were bodies? How many souls were fizzling out as I swam for the surface? I can’t begin to think of the situation like that. For a long time, I can’t even get the concept through my head. No one ever thinks about death in Equestria, because in Equestria it happens at the end of a long, happy life with close friends and family right by your side. That’s how death is supposed to work. We’re born into peace, we live in peace, and we die in peace. Nothing else makes sense. Nothing else seems entirely real.
Too cold and too confused to make sense of the world around me anymore, I lay flat against the fuselage and focus only on breathing in and out. My mind is empty of thoughts or feelings, and the gaps they leave behind are filled raw sensations of cold and pain and a numbing, almost gratifying fatigue. I should be panicking, I should be yelling for help, but instead the light behind my eyes is already sputtering away into nothing. Instead I am perfectly content to lie here and accept my fate.
I have almost closed my eyes again when I hear the scream.
My head snaps up and I nearly fall off my raft from the violence of the motion, and by the time I’ve gotten my grip back my face is burning with shame. Two minutes of losing my mind over the zeppelin crashing and everypony around me dying, and I had just about thrown in the towel myself and resigned myself to joining them. What in the name of Celestia is wrong with me? What kind of pony would choose surrendering to death over struggling to stay alive? A whole host of answers spring to mind: a weak one, a cowardly one, one that shouldn’t have survived in the first place. That’s what I am. That’s what I almost was. I am weak and I am a coward, but I am still alive. Everypony else is dead, and I am still alive.
And so is somepony else. So is whoever just screamed. There is no doubt in my mind about what I should do next. Too many ponies have died today already. I can’t let it happen again while I can still do something about it. I slide my torso off the edge of the fuselage and count down slowly from ten while my stomach and chest get used to the frigid water. Once my muscles have unclenched again, I start kicking with hind legs that feel as thick as ice blocks, and make fittingly slow progress through the debris field towards the voice.
The pony in the distance cries out again half a minute after I start paddling, and I scowl as I realize I’ve only moved forward a few feet. Too slow. This pony could be drowning already, or…I don’t want to think about what the alternatives could be. In any case, holding onto this fuselage is getting me nowhere fast. I suck in a breath and grit my teeth. I’m going to have to swim.
I spend a few precious seconds working up the courage to leave my raft behind, and I catch my first glimpse of the tower when I look up one more time to plot the course I’ll swim through the wreckage. In that moment, it looks for all the world like an oily black sea monster rearing up to search for a fresh meal. Even after I look closer and see the blocky masonwork and the barnacle-crusted island it sits on, I can’t shake the distant feeling that I shouldn’t go near it, that there’s something deep and powerful stirring within it that isn’t meant for me or anypony else to see. In the end, though, my desire to get the holy hay out of this water overpowers my sense of foreboding, and I push myself off the fuselage and start swimming towards the voice again, a low hiss slipping out of my mouth as the water covers my shoulders and laps at my chin. Whatever this thing or its reason for being out in the middle of the ocean is, it clearly wasn’t put there by accident. Somepony chose to build it out here, and that means that somepony knows—or once knew—where it is. It’s a slim hope to hold on to, but considering how I reacted the last time I lost all hope, I’m willing to take what I can get.
I only have to swim for a minute or two before the sound of splashing reaches my ears, and it isn’t long after that when I skirt around a half-submerged tail fin and see a dark figure struggling to stay on top of a soggy purple seat cushion. The pony’s shouts sound like they belong to a colt, and one in a good bit of pain at that, but I’m far beyond caring about anything as immaterial as what he looks like or what condition he’s in. All four of my hooves are filled with lead, and my heart is still thumping from my last halfway-voluntary brush with the great beyond. My one and only priority right now is getting to that tower, and as long as this colt is floating in the middle of my path towards it, I might as well take him along with me. I reach the other pony just as he loses his grip on the cushion and slips under with a rasping cough, and dive down under the mind-numbingly cold water just long enough to pull him back up into the air again.
“That way!” I yell in his ear as he gasps and squirms beside me. “Towards the island!” It occurs to me between shouts that trying to save a drowning pony without anything for us both to hold on to is probably going to end really badly for one of us, but luckily this colt handles his new situation a bit better than I did. After a few seconds, he gives me what I figure is supposed to be a nod and starts kicking towards the tower, and I follow behind at about the same pace. To him, it probably looks like I’m making sure he doesn’t go down again on the way out of the wreckage, but actually I’m barely keeping myself afloat as it is. The cold isn’t just painful now; every time I move my legs, I swear I can feel my skin peeling off and dissolving away beneath me, letting all the energy left in my body seep out into the ocean. By the time my hooves finally bump into solid ground and I drag myself out onto a flight of weather-worn concrete steps, it’s all I can do to keep from rolling right back down into the water again like a boneless, waterlogged stuffed animal.
“Wh-wha…wha-what h-happened?” the colt tries to say. His teeth are chattering just as badly as mine. “Wh-where’s everypony else?”
Shaky and feeble as it is, his voice is familiar. I’m sure I heard it at some point before the plane took off, but the comparatively warmer air still hasn’t thawed out my mind enough for me to call up a name or a face. “We crashed,” I tell him slowly. “Something happened to the zep. Something went wrong.”
There’s a long pause, and I know the colt is looking back at the wreckage like I am. “Holy…are we it? Are we the only ones left?”
“I…I-I think…” A violent shiver shakes the words out of my mouth, and I can’t bring myself to gather them back up again. “I don’t know,” I say. “You okay?”
The colt coughs, and then makes a strained noise deep in his throat. “Hit my head on something,” he groans. “I think I blacked out.”
I turn around to look at him, and there’s enough light from the sputtering lamps lining the staircase for me to get a much closer look at his face. The sense of familiarity is overpowering: silver coat, soggy blue mane sagging down over his eyes, a slightly rounded jaw tucked under a nose that’s just a bit too small for his face. I know I’ve seen this pony somewhere before. “You don’t remember anything?”
“I remember waking up underwater with the zep gone and my head splitting in two. What happened to you?”
His mouth is curled into a frown, and even under his mane I can tell his brow is creased. He’s trying to figure out who I am too. “I was asleep,” I say. “I never saw us crash either.”
The colt stares at me and I stare back, and he is about to say something else when it suddenly hits me. It’s his eyes that do it; I could be frozen in an iceberg or inches from death, but I’d known those emerald-green eyes anywhere. Finally, I know who this colt is, but the excitement of my success quickly turns to shock and then, as the colt’s eyes widen in recognition as well, condenses into a feeling of dread that’s somehow colder than any of the water I just swam through.
“Oh, you’ve gotta be kidding me…” he mutters as he drops his head back against the steps, and more than anything I wish that were somehow true. But it’s far too late to lie to myself about what we’ve just found out, let alone to him. Call it fate, call it destiny, call it somepony upstairs putting the cherry on top of the most horrific experience of my life, but the reality of the situation is clear: out of all the other one hundred and six passengers and crew abroad the Elysium, the only one of them that’s still alive is the colt who thought I was in his seat and hates me more than anypony else on the whole freaking ship. And now I just saved his life.
“Well, this is definitely not how I expected my day to end,” the colt remarks, though his look is still one of cautious distaste at best. I try to nod back, but only end up shuddering again. I’m not entirely sure it’s because of the water soaked into my fur this time.
“We need to get inside,” I say. “Maybe it’s warmer in there.”
“Warmer in…you want to go inside this thing?” He throws his foreleg up in the air and points it towards the tower. “Do you even know what this thing is?”
“I know it’s out of the water and not on fire,” I argue back, watching as he glances back at what’s left of the zeppelin. “Considering our circumstances, I’d say it’s the best option we’ve got right now.”
The colt seems to agree after a bit of thought and stands up when I do, but doesn’t make any motion towards climbing the stairs. “Can I at least know who it is I’m following into this place?” he asks.
Instinct force me to hesitate, but rationality opens my lips back up a few moments later. “I’m Ruby,” I tell him.
“I’m Link,” he tells me back. When I don’t volunteer to add anything onto that, he steps back towards the railing and gives me a cockeyed look of submission. “After you,” he adds with a sweep of his foreleg, and besides a quick dirty look of my own there’s not much else I can do to belabor the point. I haven’t decided I regret saving him just yet, but as I trot past him and start climbing, the notion is definitely on my mind.
The staircase spirals around to the opposite side of the tower, and ends at the biggest set of double doors I’ve ever seen. Each one is at least thirty feet high and made of what looks like solid copper, and carved into their fronts is the raised image of a muscle-bound male alicorn, his forelegs stretched straight up over his head towards a solid, unmarked sphere. As I step closer, the light from the lamps on either side shimmers on the polished metal, and I see that the left-side door is hanging wide open. The room that lies beyond it is pitch-black.
“Looks like somepony’s expecting us,” Link comments, his neck craned up towards the peak of the tower. “Or at least forgot to hit the lights on their way out.”
“Maybe it’s a lighthouse,” I suggest, trying to bide some time so I can work up the courage to walk in the door. “Or a research station.”
Link gives me a skeptical look. “Researching what, how salty the water is?”
“Do you have any better ideas?”
“I’m not saying you’re wrong. I just wouldn’t put any money on it.”
“Well, no one was asking you to,” I mutter under my breath. Before Link can get another smart comment in, I shut him up by shoving the door open a few inches—it’s even heavier than it looks from the outside—and walking straight on through it into the tower.
“Hello?” I call out. Behind me, I hear Link come inside too. “Is anypony in here? Our zeppelin just crashed, and we need somepony to hel‒”
A hair-raising creak interrupts me before I can finish, and Link and I turn around just in time to see the double doors slam shut of their own accord. We spend a single terrifying moment trapped in total darkness as the sound of our breathing echoes off the walls, and then without warning the room is flooded with light and a monster the size of a freight train is diving down on top of me.
I jump about a foot in the air before I realize that the beast is just a giant statue of a stern-looking unicorn mare sticking out from the wall, and I can’t help but take a small bit of satisfaction from hearing Link curse to himself in the background. I start to walk forward now that I can see again, but can’t go more than a few steps without looking back up at the statue. In retrospect, “stern” just doesn’t seem like a strong enough word for what this mare’s expression is. Every facet of her face, from her wrinkled forehead to her strangely coltish lips to her piercing iron gaze, seems to extend an open challenge to anyone who enters her domain, and I can’t figure out whether it’s ordering me to turn back or daring me to keep going. Above her head, the walls are gilded with gold, and below her chin, a cherry-red banner proclaims in faded gold letters:
IN HARMONY WE TRUST
FOR HARMONY WE PROGRESS
“Research station,” I hear Link mutter behind me. “Right.”
More lights flicker on in the back to illuminate a flight of stairs going down, but nopony comes up them to greet us. Instead, a slight breeze drifts through my soaked mane and chills me to the bone, and somewhere far in the distance I swear I hear somepony playing a deep, mournful melody on a violin. It sounds close, but at the same time I can’t begin to place where it’s coming from. The song almost sounds as if it’s emanating from the walls, as if the music is being played from places where there couldn’t possibly be anypony hiding from view. Must be some weird thing with the acoustics in here, I theorize. Maybe something with the ceiling being so…
“Wait, where are you going?”
I turn around and look at Link as I reach the head of the staircase. I hadn’t even realize I’d started walking again. “Somepony’s gotta be playing that,” I say. “Maybe they can help us.”
Link stays put and gives me an incredulous look. “You’re just gonna wander down there? What if that pony isn’t friendly? What if he tries to hurt us?”
“What if we sit up here for days and starve to death because nopony knows where to look for us?” Even I’m a bit surprised at the sudden bite in my voice. “It’s not like we have anywhere else to go. Besides, what kind of psychotic madmare plays the violin?”
The kind that would live in a gold-encrusted tower in the middle of the ocean, my conscience whispers in my ear, but I keep my mouth shut tight and watch Link follow me from a distance as I descend deeper into the tower’s base. The farther we go, the more lights come to life around us, and the more my gut twists itself into a knot. Even without the circumstances of our arrival and the statue that still looms overhead, there is still something altogether unnerving about this place. The lights, the music, the way the door was left hanging open…everything is set up to make a statement, to embed a certain feeling about this place in my mind. As crazy as it is, it almost feels like somepony was expecting us to be here tonight. Like somepony is welcoming us home.
“What in the…”
I don’t have to ask what Link just saw, because I’m looking straight at it too. The stairs stop at a balcony overlooking the single lower floor of the tower, and the only thing occupying that floor is an enormous metal sphere floating in a pond of rippling black water. A faint hum emanates from the bowels of the vessel, and the spotlight sticking out from its top illuminates the room enough to see that there are no other doors or passageways out of here. This is where the tower ends.
“What is that thing?” Link mutters in confusion. Once again, I’m the first one down the next—and last—flight of stairs, so I’m the first one to see that the sphere has a glass door on its far side big enough for two stallions to walk through side by side, and also the first to see that it’s hanging wide open. Inside, I can see two padded red benches and a lever on a pedestal stuck right in the middle, but nothing that indicates anyone else has been here anytime recently. In the background, the violin still plays the same somber tune, but whoever’s playing it is still a complete mystery.
“It’s got a big lever inside it,” I report back to Link, glancing up at him before craning my neck around the side of the sphere. “And a propeller in the back. Must run on a track of some kind.”
“And that means what exactly?”
I take a few steps closer, and after a deep breath to calm my suddenly jumpy nerves, I stick my head inside the craft. Link isn’t going to get to me that easily. “It means that if we get in this thing and pull that lever, I bet it’ll take us somewhere where somepony might be able to help us.”
“In other words, you have a death wish,” Link says breezily. “Okay. Great. At least that’s out in the open now.”
All right, definitely beginning to regret saving this guy now. “Well, you were just fine and dandy with going deeper into the tower,” I snap back. “How is this any different?”
“’Tower’ was the operative word there. Not ‘little round we-have-no-idea-what-
I don’t know precisely why, but even down here in the presence of this ominous-looking device, I’m still the brave one. “There’s nothing else in the tower except for this,” I argue, “and there aren’t any steering controls inside it, so wherever it goes, it has to go there on its own. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather check that place out than sit up here in this one waiting to see if the rescue team crashes here too.”
Link stares down at me with a strange, almost pitiful expression on his face, but doesn’t move a muscle. On the outside, I’m blazing with confidence, but on the inside I’m starting to wonder just exactly what the hay my pride is about to get me into. “I’m getting in this thing,” I go on firmly, even as my courage starts to fade away just as quickly as it came. “And if you’re not inside it in about two minutes, I’m sending it off without you. Your choice.”
It’s a completely empty threat, and I’m pretty sure both of us know it. As annoying as Link has been the past few minutes, there’s no way I’m going to just abandon him up here to die, no matter what our circumstances look like. As it turns out, though, I don’t even have to worry about what I’ll do after Link calls my bluff, because I’ve hardly even gotten in the sphere myself before I turn around and see him standing right behind me. The same expression is still on his face, but it’s tempered this time by a cold mask of indifference.
“I still don’t like this,” he informs me as he flicks his eyes around the inside of the sphere and avoids looking at me the whole time.
“You don’t have to like it,” I sigh back. “Just get in.”
Link obliges and steps inside, and now neither of us knows what to do. The sphere is big enough for us both to have a bench to ourselves, but Link has stopped close enough for me to see his chest rise and fall with each breath he takes. He’s still out of breath from the crash, as am I. His fur’s still wet too, and now that his saddlebags are gone I can see what looks like a coiled gray chain stamped on his flank, and a little white scar on his side just over his…
His saddlebags. His saddlebags are gone. My saddlebags are gone. My haunches are bare and my mane’s a sopping mess and my eyes are…
Oh, Celestia help me. My glasses aren’t over my eyes. My glasses are at the bottom of the ocean. Heat floats my cheeks and flushes down into my chest, and I feel for all the world like I’ve been shaved bare. I can’t look at Link without my glasses. I can’t even look at myself in a mirror without glasses. I look awful without glasses, like a little kindergarten filly with too big eyes and too large a nose and a stupid wet braid that she can’t even tie by herself. Part of me knows I’m being stupid, that under the circumstances I should be a bit less concerned about how my face looks and a bit more ecstatic to be alive—but losing my glasses makes me feel naked, makes me feel exposed. Nopony wants anything from a mare with glasses. Mares with glasses are just left alone.
“So are you gonna pull that lever, or...”
Without even looking up, I can feel Link’s eyes sweeping over me, probing for an explanation about why I’m so suddenly fascinated with the tops of his forelegs. I’m not brave enough to look him in the eyes, but I’m not cowardly enough to change my mind about the sphere either. Link shifts back a bit and opens his mouth, but by then I’ve made up my mind. Before he can get even a single word out, I twist my gaze away from his chest, hook a forehoof around the lever, and yank down for all I’m worth.
In the next few seconds, several things happen at once. All the lights in the room around the sphere shut off simultaneously, and the glass door on its front slams shut, a series of invisible locks clicking into place as it does. The air grows warm, the hum in the background ratchets itself up to a steady buzz, and I have just enough time to wonder what the hay is going on before the entire craft lurches down into the pool of water beneath it and throws me and Link into a heap against the wall. Before either of us even have time to panic, a tinny voice too high-pitched to be Link’s and too feminine to be mine makes my flesh crawl with shock.
“…et off me, Pinkie! Oh, heavens, when was the last time you washed your hooves?”
Another pony with an infectiously bubbly voice apologizes a moment later, and a soft chorus of groans and coughs fills the cabin. Link and I stare at each other from inches away. His eyes are green like oak leaves, and big enough to hold a whole forest.
“You hear that?” he whispers. I nod quickly, and Link falls silent again as yet another voice cuts in, still female but with a definite Southern twang to it.
“Everypony okay?” she asks. “Apple Bloom?”
“’M fine,” replies a new voice, one much younger but with a similar accent. “Just got a little…ouch! Sweetie Belle, you’re on my tail!”
“Sorry!” A different filly this time, with an even higher voice that cracks on the first syllable.
“Sorry, guys…” A mare again, one who speaks in a soft tone that reminds of my fifth-grade teacher. I finally steady myself enough to sit up, but still can’t figure out where all these voices are coming from. “I didn’t expect us to submerge that fast.”
The word “submerge” rings in my ears even after the mare stops talking, and once I get to my hooves and look towards the door, I nudge Link in the side and point towards the water rushing by outside. He gets up just in time to watch with me as an ornate white sign passes by the window and disappears into the darkness above us.
“Twenty fathoms,” Link reads aloud. “How far is that?”
“I don’t know,” I answer as a familiar tingling begins to return to my chest. “But we’re still going down.”
“So wait, where are we going?” asks yet another voice, this one brash and powerful but also a bit squeaky and tinged with nervous energy. “I thought this guy was on an island someplace, Twilight.”
“The coordinates in the letter led straight to the tower, and this was the only thing in it,” answers the teacher voice. That’d be Twilight, I guess. “Looks like the place this pony can’t get away from is underwater somewhere. Maybe they work at a research station.”
I shoot a smug look at Link. “Oh, shut up,” he mumbles back as the other ponies go on.
“I think I bumped my head on something.” It’s the bubbly voice again. “That little glow-y something right over there.”
“Pinkie, what are you…oh. Oh, my,” says the first voice. “Twilight, what on Earth is that thing?”
“I don’t know, Rarity,” Twilight replies, and a sudden hiss of what sounds like radio static finally draws my attention over to the wall beside the sphere’s door, where there’s a little square machine with a row of buttons running along its top, and an indentation full of what looks like luminescent lime-green jelly right in its center. Twilight’s voice is much louder the next time she speaks, and the jelly ripples and vibrates in exact sync with her words.
“It looks like it’s a containment unit for some kind of self-sufficient spell,” she murmurs, “but the magic for enchanting non-solid objects is incredibly advanced. I’ve never seen anything like this before.”
“Is it dangerous?” a new mare asks, her voice quiet but tinged with budding panic. By now, Link has picked up on the sounds coming from the machine as well.
“I don’t think so, but I can’t imagine what it’s for. The gel looks like it’s responding to my voice in some way, but as for what it’s supposed to be doing, I…”
A burst of orchestra music cuts Twilight off in mid-theory, and I don’t realize that the same music is playing in the sphere with us until a white canvas screen slides down in front of the door, and a faded advertisement flashes up for the same machine the voices are coming from. “‘Glowing Ember’s Personal Voice Recorders’,” Twilight recites. She’s looking at the same ad that I am. “‘Need to remember? Count on Ember!’” Twilight pauses for a moment, and reads further down the slide. “’Free sample in every bathysphere.’ Huh. Guess that explains that.”
A bathysphere. That’s what this thing is. The name rings familiar in my ears, and I’m not the only one who feels the same. “It’s a personal submersible, Rainbow,” Twilight explains, after her brash-voiced friend loudly asks what the hay a “bath of fear” is. “Ponies who study ocean currents and marine life use them to go underwater and make observations, but…”
“…but they’re not supposed to be moving like this,” I finish under my breath. Now I remember where I’ve seen that name before: in a thick blue book in the Mechanics section of the Rockton Library, printed under an charcoal sketch of a complex mechanical orb hanging twenty feet underwater on a thick black cable. The bathysphere in that book didn’t have a propeller behind it. It also didn’t have a little square machine inside it filled with magical green jelly that could snatch a mare’s words right out of the air and let her play them back anytime she pleased. As far as I know, nothing has one of those machines in it. For a moment, I can’t help but wonder if this whole thing really is just a long, crazy nightmare after all.
In front of me, the image in the window flickers and disappears, and is soon replaced by a second one with no pictures but a lot more text. This time, no one on the other end of the voice recorder reads it aloud, so after a few seconds Link decides to fill the silence with his own voice.
“Please remain seated until the bathysphere has come to a complete stop. Further instructions will be given once docking procedures are complete. Welcome to Harmony.” I can hear Link’s confusion hanging in the air as he falls silent, probably because I’m about as baffled as he is. “Harmony…” he mutters to himself a moment later, and once again it’s all I can do to suppress a shudder. I still can’t place my hoof on exactly what it is that feels so off about all this, but the more surreal my situation gets, the stronger that feeling becomes. Far too late, I begin to wonder whether staying up in the tower wasn’t the better idea after all.
“I don’t like this, Twi,” Rainbow says through the recorder, her tone a good bit quieter than I heard before. “This is really weird.”
“I know it’s weird, Rainbow, but I don’t think I can turn this thing around until it gets where it’s going,” Twilight replies, sympathy mixing with unmistakable determination. “Besides, anypony who could build something like this must be worth talking to. I want to find out what they want from us.”
“What they want from you.”
“Rainbow!” the country mare hisses.
“Well, it’s true, isn’t it? We’re all just along for the ride. We aren’t even supposed to be here!” The country pony tries to argue back, but Rainbow keeps talking right over her. “I mean, seriously, what kind of pony lives somewhere you have to get to underwater? Who does that? So she built this bathysphere thing, big deal. It’s not like that means she’s gonna be some crazy-smart inventor with a whole…whole…”
The sudden silence draws my attention back over to the right, where the screen in front of the window has dropped back out of view. In the distance, behind a massive sandy ridge coated with rocks and seaweed, an unearthly glow illuminates what I’d call the horizon on the surface. “What is that?” Rainbow whispers, and now her brashness has been replaced entirely by fear. To be honest, it’s pretty easy to relate to her at the moment: my heart’s turning backflips inside my chest, and goosebumps are rolling back and forth across my back.
“W-we’re moving towards it,” the quiet mare stammers, and she’s right. Already, I can feel my stomach being pulled towards the floor as the sphere ascends up the ridge. The light gets brighter every second.
“Everypony calm down,” Twilight pleads. “It’s probably just the docking platform. Just hold on until we get over this ridge, and then you’ll see there’s nothing to worry abo…abo…oh my gosh.”
I see exactly what Twilight saw the instant we crest over the ridge, and in that first moment where we are looking with the same eyes, the bathysphere vanishes from beneath my hooves and the senseless cold of the ocean sweeps in all around me. I am floating past a building taller than any skyscraper in Manehattan, bigger than any castle in Canterlot, and behind it is another one just as huge, and then another, and another. Each construction’s façade is lit up by countless neon signs and double-paned windows, and each of them shimmers and gleams in the murky haze of the water surrounding them, the water that should cleave them in two and grind each shattered brick into dust. This can’t be possible. This can’t exist. I can’t be seeing this with my eyes, sensing this with my body. I can’t still be alive at a depth that only the dead could ever hope to reach.
It’s almost a full ten seconds before the bathysphere snaps back into focus, before my legs find solid ground again and I can see the reflection of Link in the door glass as his chest heaves and his eyes widen to the size of saucers. I shut my eyes and bite my lip hard, but when I look up again the buildings still stand as strong as ever. In fact, we’re close enough now to see a polished white statue hanging off the front of one. A statue of a pony. A statue of an alicorn with both hooves extending over his head. The same image I saw carved into the doors of the tower that had gotten us down here.
“Holy sh…” Link tries to say, but his jaw never moves back up to form the final syllable, and from then on all I can think is the same thing I thought when I broke the surface of Eternity’s Crossing and held onto a piece of fuselage to keep it from sealing back over me again.
This is real. This is real. This is real.
I’m not looking at a docking platform. I’m not looking at a research station or a lighthouse, or even another tower like the one on the surface. I’m looking at majestic tiered structures a hundred stories tall, at walkways and guiding tracks snaking between and into them, at squid and whales the size of ocean liners weaving through the spires like rabbits between trees. I try to rationalize what’s in front of me, try to dream up some fantasy I might be able to compare this to, but this place’s existence defies description, defies logic. The ocean around me is dead, but this place is alive, like an organism. Like a microcosm. Like an ecosystem.
Like a city.
I’m looking at an entire underwater city.
And the bathysphere I’m standing in is taking me right to it.
It’s at least a full minute before anyone in the bathysphere speaks again, and when somepony does pipe up, her voice comes from the box on the wall. “This is incredible,” Twilight whispers, her tone solemn and shaky with awe. “Those buildings are anchored straight into the ocean bedrock. We must be miles below the surface by now!”
“Is that supposed to make me feel better?” Rainbow growls back. Her gruffness doesn’t sound like anger as much as it does nausea, and I’m pretty sure I can understand why. Drifting by windows fifteen stories above the sea floor is giving me the uncomfortable sense that I’m flying, and even if my eyes can look around and tell me I’m still standing in the bathysphere, my stomach hasn’t quite figured out how to connect the dots just yet. I swallow hard and wipe the sweat off my brow with a shaking foreleg, and as the recorder goes quiet again I try to distract myself by looking off into the cluster of buildings I’m heading towards.
Most of the city—Harmony, I guess, if the slideshow was anything to go by—is made up of the same kind of structures I’ve already seen: tall, formidable, glassy-eyed giants, each with a different flickering sign or set of decorative columns gracing every side I can see. The deeper I look into the maze of steel and stone, though, the taller the buildings become and the brighter the signs glow, and in the city center behind it all lies a monstrous white dome, its rounded peak stretching up higher than even the tallest tower around it and backlit by an eerie blue glow.
Off to the left, an uncommonly wide building bears a logo of an orange and red-lit flame encircled by the words “Pyrus Industries”, and laid out beneath a glass-paneled web of dark brown girders to the right are rows and rows of what look for all the world like apple trees. Calling this place a city was right on the money: this entire settlement is self-sufficient, making all its own food and manufacturing all its own technology. Technology like this bathysphere, and little machines the size of shoeboxes that can record everything that happens around you inside two cups of magically enhanced jelly. Technology that nopony else in the world has ever seen before.
Even with my heart pounding fit to burst, I can’t stop a shiver of anticipation from crawling across my back. All my life, I’ve wondered what the inventions of the future would look like, and now it looks like I’m about to find out. What if there are things in this place I can’t begin to imagine, things that aren’t even machines at all? Twilight said that enchanting non-solid objects was nearly impossible. If they can do that easily enough to give away free samples of it, who knows what else is possible in this place? Who knows what else is waiting to be discovered?
The hum of the bathysphere’s propeller shifts down a notch as the craft banks to the left and descends, and I bend the smile off my face quickly once I notice that Link is staring at me with wide eyes and mouth still hanging open in shock. Thankfully, he figures out what he looks like pretty soon after, and slams his lips shut so quickly I can hear his teeth click together, an impassive expression overtaking his face once more. He’s definitely had some practice at hiding his emotions. I should know. I’ve had a fair bit of it myself.
We move by Pyrus Industries and pass under one of the glass walkways that connect all the buildings, and the bathysphere levels out again just as the recorder crackles to life again. This time, though, the voices that come out are garbled and distorted, almost as if somepony else is trying to talk over them. Applejack starts off making some remark about the Pyrus building, but whatever Twilight says in return is muddled up by a nervous male voice that cuts in over hers, and after that I swear I can hear Applejack talking about two different things at the same time. It doesn’t make any sense, and it certainly doesn’t do anything to make my excitement stick around. Neither does noticing that some of the signs in this part of the city are flickering on and off and hanging loose from their moorings, or that some of the buildings themselves have jagged holes torn in them like they were hit by a cannonball. The rest of Harmony that I’ve seen makes the place look like it lives up to its name, but this section here reminds me more of a war zone.
I allow myself another gulp and keep my eyes pointed forward, in the meantime idly threading a nonexistent axle through a make-believe set of wagon wheels. Whatever questions I have about this place can be answered once we dock, and worrying about them now is going to get me nowhere pretty dang fast. That’s what I tell myself over the imaginary creaking of wooden spokes, anyway, but when everything I look at adds a dozen more questions to the buzzing hive of them inside my head, it’s a bit hard to forget that I can plainly see a hundred things worth worrying about in every structure we pass.
And now that we’ve straightened out, I can finally see where we’re headed as well. Set into the side of a wide, windowless building just a few dozen yards away is a seamless round hole the exact size of the bathysphere, the setup of the wall around it making the whole thing look like an entrance gate. The lamp on top of the bathysphere dims a bit as we enter, and we’re only inside the tunnel for a moment or two before it ends in a cylindrical chamber set aglow with ambient light, where a sudden and violent jolt tells me we’ve latched onto something out of sight.
All the while, the recorder keeps sounding off like it’s steering a boat to shore. There’s only one voice speaking right now, but the words are so faint and scrambled by static that I can’t even tell whose voice it is, let alone what they’re talking about. Between that and the fact that the bathysphere is now being hoisted up through the now-vertical tunnel to Celestia-knows-where, I’ve officially found enough of a good reason to tell my better judgment to go screw itself. Link’s not quivering with fear yet, though, and there’s no way I’ll let myself be the first to crack. Not before I figure out what’s really going on down here.
“See, I told you we’d find help down here,” I tell him, watching from the corner of my eye as he presses his lips together and doesn’t say anything in reply. “Look, they’re already bringing us in.”
“This thing drove itself down here without anypony steering it,” Link remarks after a moment’s pause. “Could still be driving itself now.” Once he notices the look on my face, he closes his mouth again and lapses into a pout. “’Scuse me for being realistic,” he mutters.
“Yeah, I’m not sure ‘realistic’ is the right word for anything down here,” I reply as I look back out the front window, where our final destination is still blocked from view. “In any case, a place this big with this much magic stuff is bound to have a few unicorns in it. So all we have to do is wait for this thing to get where it’s going, and then go find somepony who can send a letter long-distance to Canterlot. After that, we’re as good as gone. The rescue team finds us in a few days, we don’t drown or freeze to death, and Oceanus Airlines buys our alfalfa for the rest of our lives.” I pause, and eye Link again. “That sound realistic enough for you?”
A fleeting glance and a nod is all I get, and anything I might’ve done about that is made moot by the crashing sound of parting water. The bathysphere has finally surfaced again, and although it’s mostly unconscious, I still breathe a sigh of relief. After everything that’s happened in the last twenty minutes, just getting out of the water again is enough to work a little bit of the tension out of my shoulders. Granted, the noise from the recorder seems to be getting louder every second, but despite that my confidence is already starting to pool up in my stomach again. In just one day, I’ve survived a zeppelin crash, a submarine trip through an indescribable underwater city, and the Equestrian media, and now I can finally do something about it.
Yeah. I can do this. I can do this. I can get out of here and find a way home. I just have to keep going, figure out who’s in charge here, and stay...
The bathysphere locks into position with another jolt, and the front door swings open just as the headlight on top flashes back on. My forehoof is halfway through its first step outside before I look up and see where we’ve landed, but once I do it jerks and stops in midair before it can even touch the ground. I would’ve thought nothing would surprise me after all the things that led to me being down here in the first place, but somehow what I find waiting outside our little submarine makes my breath catch in my throat anyway. For a moment, I try to just accept the absurdity of it all. For a moment, I try to disconnect myself from a reality that’s getting harder and harder to accept as the night goes on. For a moment, I try to tell myself that this isn’t really as bad as it seems. But I can’t, because it isn’t until we’ve landed that I realize how badly I didn’t want the trip to end. It isn’t until I get a chance to stop and get a grip on myself that I remember how terrified I truly am.
And it isn’t until I’m finally back out in the air again that I really begin to feel like I’m in way over my head.
The room before me is cavernous, lit by flickering lamps bolted onto intricate bronze columns and topped by a vaulted ceiling a hundred feet high. Empty docking bays extend in either direction beside me, and the wall behind the main platform up ahead is segmented by grimy vertical picture windows, each one offering a view of a blocky gray office building a few million gallons of seawater away. The dock is huge, the dock is coated with shadows and grime, the dock smells like sea salt and mold, and aside from dripping water and the distant buzz of a housefly, it is completely and utterly silent. Off to my left, though, the recorder is still going haywire with static, as well as the broken words of that same increasingly frantic voice that sends goosebumps rolling down my legs every time I can pick it out.
If this place is trying to make an impression on me, it’s working, because right now I have a very, very good impression that I really don’t want to be down here right now. Staying put seems like an even worse idea, though, so I bite down hard on the edges of my tongue and let my hoof drop the rest of the way onto the platform. When nothing explodes or tries to eat me alive, I follow suit with my other forehoof, and then a moment later with my whole body. I can’t be afraid. I can’t let this place get to me. I have to be strong. I have to find my way home.
“Hello?” I call out, my shout repeating twice before fading away. I wait for ten seconds and then twenty, but no friendly words of welcome ring out to answer me. By the time I take another step forward, even the fly has stopped buzzing. A thin line of sweat begins to form below my scalp, and the farther I walk down the landing platform, the more the pull in my stomach to run for cover starts to feel like a yank.
“There’s no one here,” Link says behind me, his voice hoarse in a way that makes him sound a bit out of breath.
“There’s gotta be someone here…” I whisper, probably too quietly for him to hear. “Hello?” I yell again, and still no one replies. He’s probably right, I tell myself. Somepony should’ve come down by now. Somepony should know we’re here.
“Hey! Is anypony out the-”
“Ruby, there’s no one here!” Link hisses. “Just get back in the bathysphere so we can get the hell out of here!”
“Would you give me a second to figure this out?” I snap back, turning around to face him but still backing up closer to the main platform as I do. “This place didn’t build itself. Somepony has to be down here, and I’m gonna find them.”
“And then what? How are they supposed to help us get home from a thousand miles under the ocean?”
“They can send a letter. Or they’ll have a radio. Or…or another bathysphere. They’ll have something.”
“Ruby, this is insane. You’re acting insane. How do you know they can help us?”
My eyes drift off towards the back of the sub, and Link falls out of focus. “I don’t know.”
“How do you know they’ll want to help us?”
“Stars above, how do you even know anyone’s still alive down he-”
“I don’t! I don’t know, okay?”
Link’s lips freeze in mid-sentence, and as his face pales, the rest of his question trails off and dissolves into the darkness. After echoing three times around the dock, my shout does the same. “Just let me check,” I beg, my eyes shut tight and my throat starting to seize at what it must know is the absolute worst possible time. “Just let me make sure there’s no one here, and then we can do whatever the hay you want. Just stay there in the bathysphere, and don’t…don’t leave without me.”
“I’ll be right back.”
I still have my eyes closed as I turn around to step onto the main platform, so when the concrete beneath my forehoof suddenly gives way and slides out from under me, the beat my heart skips is nearly enough to send me sprawling to the floor. A thunderous barrage of shouts and screams is enough to force me down anyway, though, if only to protect myself from the infuriated mob that’s suddenly mere inches away. I cover my head with my forelegs and press my face into the freezing cold deck, but the roar only get louder and angrier, and the pulse in my chest only pounds harder and faster. I am trapped under a suffocating carpet of confusion and rage, but then I hear a single voice cut through the crowd. Somepony is calling out over them. Somepony is calling my name.
I open my eyes, and the more my vision adjusts, the more my head throbs. The dock is still empty save for me, and for the silver unicorn colt standing over me with his mane hanging over his eyes and my name still fading from his lips.
“Ruby!” Link yells again. Once he sees that I’m alert again, he lets out a heavy sigh of relief and pushes his forehoof up through his fringe. “What the hell are you…”
Link’s gaze trails off as his voice does, and soon after that I’m looking at the same thing he is. On the edge of the dock, right where my forehoof was fifteen seconds ago, another personal voice recorder glows a vivid shade of green, just like the one in the bathysphere did. This one out here, though, looks like a sturdier model than the sample we left behind, and the waves of sound rippling in the gel are clearly visible even from a couple yards away. It’s also about ten times louder, and the voices that blast out of it are about a hundred times more unnerving. The loudest one is that of a heavy-set stallion who sounds like he’s speaking into a megaphone, but the cries and insults of mares and colts alike that fly through the air at rapid-fire speed are almost enough to completely obliterate it:
“Mares and gentlecolts…”
“Harmony is dead!” a sour-voiced mare jeers.
“…eturn to your homes immedi…”
“We ain’t your property!” a stallion proclaims.
“…his is an unlawful gatheri…”
“Ryder doesn’t own us!” a different stallion declares as another one agrees.
“…ay down your weapons and retu…”
“Let it end, let us ascend!” the first mare begins to chant.
“…order will not be repeated…”
“Let it end, let us ascend!” More ponies have joined the mare. A burst of static comes through the megaphone that sounds an awful lot like somepony swearing.
“…sten to me, you worthless little ra…”
“Let it end, let us ascend!”
“…ck off this dock and back inside your ho…”
“Let it end, let us ascend!”
“…are authorized to use deadly force if…”
“Let it end, let us ascend!”
“…ou understand that, ya spliced-up frea…”
“Let it end, let us ascend!”
“…ack up! All of you, get away from th…”
“Let it end, let us asce-”
Just as the crowd reaches a crescendo, two ear-splitting cracks punch their way out of the recorder, loud enough that I almost duck and cover again myself. More reports follow, some isolated and others strung together in short bursts, and as the riot collapses into a disorienting uproar of agonized screams and groans, the stallion shrieks himself hoarse all the while.
“Get back!” he howls. “I said get ba-”
A stuttering clunk wipes away the last of the stallion’s words, and after a few more whirring clicks, there is silence once more. The recording has ended. The riot is gone. I let out a slow, shaky breath and look off towards the dock’s back wall. The columns are smeared with speckled black residue, and there are dark brown stains soaked into the concrete below. I can’t be sure those came from explosions. I can’t be sure those splatters used to be blood. Either way, I don’t want to know, and I don’t care to dig any deeper into this place and risk finding out. At this point, sitting up in the tower and starving to death sounds just fine to me.
“Let’s get back in the sub,” I say to Link. He barely even gets a chance to frantically nod his agreement before I’m halfway back to the bathysphere again.
I’m only a few feet away from the sphere when the recorder inside emits a deafening squeal, and through the racket I can clearly hear somepony say, “Just one more minute.” Link nearly runs me over when I stop dead in my tracks, but before we can untangle ourselves, another noise spins my head around towards the main platform again. Something just fell hard on the far end of the dock, something blocky and inconstant and almost too dark to see. I look closer, and my heart skips its second beat of the day. It’s not just something. It’s someone. A pony is standing way over on the right side of the chamber, a small, spindly pegasus mare who’s staring at me with her head held low and her wings standing erect on her back.
“C’mon,” I mutter to Link, thanking the stars in the same breath before taking in another one and heading back down the dock. “Hey,” I call out as I reach the center of the main platform. “Excuse me. My name’s Ruby, and this is Link. We came down here in the bathysphere. Do you know who runs this place?”
“Ruby…” Link mutters in a cautionary tone. He’s right by my side again, though he’s standing a good foot farther back from the pegasus than I am. I take another step forward and ignore him.
“Our zeppelin crashed, and we thought the bathysphere might lead to somepony who can help us,” I go on. The pegasus flutters her wings and creeps closer with her left shoulder forward, but never lifts her head any farther from the ground or tries to speak herself. “Is there a radio somewhere we can use, or…uh…can you hear me?”
Once again, the pegasus doesn’t answer, instead just moving another step closer with her wings still twitching and her chin nearly scraping the ground. The light in the dock is still to dim to get a clear view of her face, but a few halting steps later I can hear deep, rattling sighs coming from her mouth. No wonder she’s not talking; she sounds sick as a dog. She probably needs help just as much as we do.
One last question about where we can find somepony else to help us starts to form on my lips, but when the pegasus sucks in another rattling breath, the words escape me and I take an involuntary step back. Thick bars of light dye the floor a wavering shade of teal right in front of each of the windows, and as the pegasus stops at the edge of one of them, a flash of yellow near the floor draws my attention to her ankles. On both her forelegs, thick metallic hooks lie flush against the outsides of her hooves, each one attached by a tiny hinge to a solid black brace that runs almost up to her knee. The mare shudders and lets out a hacking cough, and when she shifts her legs a bit I can see that both of the hooks are barbed. I look up and take another step back. The recorder has gone silent. I still can’t see the mare’s face.
My voice cracks in mid-sentence, and I choke on the rest of it before it can slip out. It takes more than one gulp to get the dryness out of my throat. “Are you all right?”
This time, something changes. The mare jerks and hunches back, then pushes out a throaty breath that sounds angry. That sounds hungry. Cold sweat breaks out on my shoulders and legs, and when I look back towards the bathysphere I hear the same distorted voice from before, only now it’s clear as a bell and getting louder every second. A faint snick behind me worms its way into my ears and settles at the base of my spine, but my legs are glued to the floor and I wouldn’t want to turn around even if I could. I can’t even identify what it is I’m so afraid of: the fear coursing through me is primal, like my body instinctively knows that something is not right long before my mind can even begin to wonder what went wrong. I can hear hoofsteps in the distance, but between the shaking in my hooves and the electric surges of panic engulfing my brain, it’s impossible to know whether this new presence is real or just a product of my desperate mind.
And all the while, the mare behind me keeps breathing, keeps sucking in air and pushing it back out in uneven rasping groans, and with every noise she makes I can feel the sound waves pressing on my neck, bending the hairs down and yanking them back up as it passes by. At the other end of the dock is a hallway that cuts off to the left. I could run there and escape, and the mare would never catch me in her condition, but the hoofsteps I think I hear are echoing out from that same corridor. I need to move. I need to go. I need to lift my hooves and grit my teeth and sprint towards the safety I can’t allow myself to believe I’m imagining, but I can’t move and I can’t think and I can’t breathe, because I’m standing in a building at the bottom of the ocean and I’m drowning in the knowledge that there is no way I will ever get out of it again.
Somewhere out of sight, something heavy and hard crashes to the ground, and I know without looking that the mare’s breath has caught in her throat. There is an infinitesimal moment where the air stands still, where I feel Link’s tail brush across my ribs and I see a shadow flit into view in the hallway, and then a leathery buzz fills the room and Link jerks back and I’m staring with disbelieving eyes over at the hallway, where a chocolate-brown unicorn colt with a coffee-colored mane and a red cargo vest has just skidded around the corner. Link mutters something under his breath and I turn my head to look at him, and in that moment I notice three things: one, Link’s body is pointed in the opposite direction as mine; two, his eyes are narrowed and his mouth is twisted into a sour frown of confusion; and three, the mare that had been creeping up behind me this whole time is gone. There are no hoofsteps left on the grimy floor, no wingbeats fading away in the distance, not even so much as a muffled growl of pain. The spindly, sickly little pegasus has simply disappeared.
Blinking away the sudden fogginess creeping into my vision, I nudge Link in the side and motion back towards the hallway. After blinking a few times and showing off his bewildered look to me, he rotates around to face the new arrival, and I do the same just in time to see the unicorn lift a hoof to his chest pocket and press down on the side of a little golden box strapped onto its front.
“I found ‘em,” he says, his voice high and breathless with a Trottingham tinge to it. “AJ, I got ‘em, they’re right here. What do I do?”
Between the now-vanished pegasus mare and the brand new heart attack that just clattered into view, the last thing I’m concerned with is what Clutzy Hooves over here needs to do. Mostly, my first and only instinct is to scream my ever-loving head off and figure out why later. Before I even have time to squeak, though, the colt’s little box answers him with the voice of an unmistakably Southern country mare. It’s a radio, I realize a bit embarrassingly late, and the pony on the other end of it sounds flustered, impatient, and for some implacable reason, familiar.
“What d’ya do?” she shouts. “Well, what d’ya think you should do, dance a jig and sing ‘em a welcome song? Get ‘em outta there, for Pete’s sake!”
The colt gives a jerky nod and licks his lips, and then instead of running away like I’d been expecting him to before, he just lifts his forehoof off his radio and points it in our direction.
“You two,” he calls out. “Come with me.”
There’s no way in Equestria I’m about to just skip off with this guy after everything that’s happened, and I’m about to impress that upon him before Link beats me to the punch. “Who the hell are you?” he asks.
The colt blinks, and the shock of the moment is apparently so much that he can’t decide whether to keep his mouth open or closed. “I…m-my name’s Chestnut,” he finally stammers, “but that’s really not important right now. Right now, we gotta move before-”
“Move to where?” I cut in. “What is this place? Where are we?”
“Look, just…” Chestnut starts to say before the mare on the radio yells for him to get a move on, and he yells back that he knows, we’re going. “I-I’ll tell you later,” he stutters after that, and he goes on to detail all the various reasons why we need to quit talking and start walking. In my head, though, all I can hear is the clicking of his radio, and the echo of the voice that just came out of it. I can’t imagine a time in my life where I might have met the mare Chestnut was talking to, but a feeling almost like déjà vu is telling me that somehow I’ve heard her voice before. Somehow, I know who this mare is, not as a friend or enemy or even an acquaintance, but something simpler than that, something closer than that, something I can’t begin to identify even as the feeling of symmetry grows stronger and stronger…
“Why should we trust you?” Link asks with narrowed eyes.
“Because I’m not the one tryin’ to kill you!” Chestnut groans back. “I don’t know how much clearer I can make th-”
“Chestnut!” the mare in the radio screams, and it’s as if somepony has soaked me with a garden hose and finally woken me up. I do know that voice. Of course I know that voice. No more than five minutes ago, I was listening to that voice, listening to a little box on the wall full of glowing green jelly that vibrated with the voices of a brash young mare and a soft-toned older one, and one with a definite Southern twang. An unmistakable Southern twang.
“She was on the bathysphere,” I whisper to myself. “Link, she was on the bathysphere!” I repeat a second later, only this time I want Link and Chestnut and everypony else within earshot to know too.
“What?” Link says, glancing over at me for a moment without fully looking away from Chestnut. “What are you talking about?”
“I know that mare on the radio. She was in the recording we heard on the bathysphere,” I explain quickly. “Link, she came down here just like we did!”
“And that means we should trust her?”
“It means she’s working with this guy, and this guy doesn’t want to kill us.”
“Right, because anypony with that spiffy of a vest has to be telling the truth.”
I can’t bring myself to tell Link why he’s wrong, mostly because he’s not. I really don’t have a good reason not to believe Chestnut or this other mare are lying to us, but at the same time, something deep in my gut makes me want to believe they aren’t. Desperation is one possibility, blind optimism another, but the explanation I end up sticking with is really more of a memory. I think back to the recording, think back to Twilight and Rainbow and all the rest of them, and I remember how shocked they were to see this place. This mare was with them. This mare had to have been feeling the same things they were, had to be seeing this city with the same eyes, so she must know what we’re going through right now. She must remember what it feels like. And if that’s the mare who’s working with Chestnut, who’s telling us through him that she wants to get us to safety, then that’s the best option I figure we’re going to get. Even if we only know each other through a voice recording, that’s more than I know of anypony else down here. For the moment, I’ll just have to make do with that.
“It’s him or that pegasus,” I mutter to Link, and before he can answer I trot up towards Chestnut and park myself expectantly about ten feet in front of him. He gets the message quicker than Link does, but once everypony’s on the same page, the former nods again and starts off down the corridor. “This way,” he murmurs. “And stay close.”
From the docking bay, Chestnut leads us into a room that reminds me a lot like the terminal in the Canterlot airport. Instead of being filled with candy shops and traveling salesponies hawking their wares, though, this place just has a few rows of metal benches and several stagnant puddles, and a kiosk set between two darkened archways up ahead with a big red “CLOSED” sign in its window and water cascading down its front. Link and I follow our guide through the archway on the left, and that spits us out into a red-carpeted and velvet-draped waiting area, where Chestnut trots up to a pair of immense mahogany doors and then hangs an immediate left. One more right turn later, we’re in another long, narrow hallway, this one lit by circular light fixtures spaced evenly apart overhead, bordered by floor-to-ceiling viewing windows on the left and mildewed wooden panels on the right, and quiet as the grave.
“Come on,” Chestnut hisses back at me once he notices I’ve stopped to stare out at the panoramic view the glass panels offer. “We’ve gotta go.”
This time, he sets off again without even checking to see if we’re following, which gives Link a chance to sidle up next to me and murmur in my ear. “Next chance we get, let’s run for it,” he says, so quietly I can barely pick the words out. Clearly, he doesn’t think Chestnut needs to hear him conspiring to get us hopelessly lost down here. Now if I could only figure out why he seems to think I do.
“Are you crazy?” I growl back, though I keep my voice low too. “What did this guy ever do to you?”
“Oh, I don’t know, drag me off deeper into an underwater ghost town without telling me where we’re going or why we’re going there. Just to pick a pertinent example.”
“What the hay could be so bad about trusting him?”
“The fact that he might be trying to kill us?”
“If he wanted to…”
I glance back up at Chestnut, but he’s still creeping slowly down the hallway just like he was before. I don’t think he can hear us, but I lower my voice again all the same. “If he wanted to kill us, he would’ve already done it,” I whisper.
“Then why won’t he tell us where we’re going?” Link mutters back.
“I don’t know,” I answer him as scathingly as I can. “Why don’t you ask him?”
Link looks off to the side for a second, then shifts his eyebrows up and nods. “All right,” he says, his tone bright as a summer morning in Appaloosa. And the moment I realize I’m too late to stop him, he straightens up and points his gaze at the coffee-colored tail shuffling down the hallway in front of us.
“Hey, Chestnut!” he shouts. “You got an ETA for us, or are we just waiting for the tour guide to get out of the little colts’ room?”
Chestnut turns around, his expression hedged squarely on the fence between incredulous and terrified. “Simple enough, isn’t it?” Link goes on. “It’s like a trust exercise. You tell me where the hell we’re going, and I trust you. That suit you all right?”
“Suit m…for pony’s sake, would you keep it down?” Chestnut replies, his head lowered in mid-cringe as if every word Link said was a punch in the gut.
“Just answer the question, Chestnut,” Link says, and now his tone isn’t quite so jovial. “Where. The hell. Are we going?”
“Link, shut up,” I snarl back, although even I’m not really sure why he should. Aside from that pegasus in the docking bay and Chestnut and his radio, I haven’t seen hide nor hair of anypony since I fell asleep on the zeppelin. There aren’t even crickets to break the silence down here, let alone other ponies. In any case, Link only gives me the courtesy of a brief glance before ignoring me anyway.
“Okay, I’m gonna give you, say, ten seconds to quit screwing around with us, or I’m just gonna go find another bathysphere and leave you in Celestia’s hooves,” he announces. “Start talking, or I start counting.”
Chestnut’s jaw drops, and quivers through every word he tries to force past it. “W-wait, what d’you…”
“Oh, for the love’a…”
“Are y…are you bloody serious…”
“Wait. W-wait, stop…”
“No, really, just…”
“Oh, sun and moon…”
“Link, for pony’s sake…” I start to say.
“Damn it to Hades, shut up! Everypony shut up now!”
Link’s expression doesn’t change, but surprisingly enough, he closes his mouth as Chestnut freezes in place, his shout reverberating all the way back out to the terminal again. “Shut up, and don’t move,” he breathes out a moment later, his eyes bugged out and his chest heaving like he just sprinted in from far end of the hallway and saw half a dozen ghosts along the way.
“Why, is there a bee on me?” Link manages to mutter before Chestnut silences him again with an inexplicably frantic stare. Link glares back with almost the same intensity, and I’m about to step in between them and playact the voice of reason when the lamp above my head flickers for a moment. All three of us look up at it, and as we watch with mixed degrees of horror, it flickers once more, dims to a dirty beige hue, and then brightens back up to its normal strength. After a few more wide-eyed seconds of staring up at the now perfectly normal light fixture, I almost chuckle at how scared we all were over such a little thing, and as the hair on the back of my neck begins to flatten out again, I turn towards Link to ask if he’d gotten nervous too.
I’m still turning when every lamp in the hallway goes dark.
In an instant, the back of my neck is electrified again, along with every other inch of my body. Chestnut swears and jumps back against the window, and in the ambient green glow of the ocean that filters in from outside, I see a dim white aura envelop his horn as he yanks a blocky metal object out from under his vest and points it towards the entrance hall we just came through. Once I look closer and see what it is, another shock wave sweeps through me. The stock may be silver instead of black, and it’s certainly a lot smaller than any I’ve heard of before, but I’ve flipped through enough military history books to know a cannon when I see one. The firing mechanism is set behind a rotating chamber embedded in a wooden handle, though, and judging by the way the air seems to shimmer around a flattened metal trigger beneath it, it looks like it’s not fuse-fired either. I could just write it off as another amazing invention born inside an extraordinary city, but as the temperature in the hallway dips and the window rivets creak, I can’t help but wonder something I don’t think I want to know the answer to: in a city built miles under the ocean and filled with the kind of technology most ponies can only daydream about, why would anypony need to be armed?
For about ten seconds, nothing moves. I’m stuck facing the window with one forehoof raised halfway off the floor, Link stands two feet to my left and just a hair outside my range of vision, and right in front of me Chestnut has lowered himself into a fighting stance and holds his firearm dead level with his eyes, his aim never wavering even for a second. The world narrows to a tunnel that ends with a long silver barrel and a brown finished grip, and I start counting my heartbeats under my breath, if only to give myself something else to focus on.
When I get to twenty-seven, Chestnut’s left ear twitches. Six beats later, he lets out a slow, cautious sigh and lowers his weapon to his chest, though he doesn’t loosen his grip for even a second.
“Okay,” he whispers without looking at us. “Quiet as you can, turn ‘round and go down the hall. Stop at the end and wait for me there. If I don’t…if something hap…” Chestnut swallows hard, and a dark circle of sweat blooms on the carpet below his chin. “I-If something happens to me, turn left, go up the stairs, keep turnin’ right till you get to the plaza, then take the elevator down and follow the signs for the market. Don’t stop, don’t make any loud noises, and for the love’a the sun, don’t go anywhere but where I told you t-”
I barely even hear the thump at the end of the hallway, but to Chestnut it may as well have been a bomb going off. He jerks his weapon back up and stares at the foyer, his mouth forming a flurry of words that I’m not close enough to hear. A second, louder thump follows a second later, and once I turn my head again and start listening with him, I can hear something else too, a scratching, scraping, shuffling sound like somepony is dragging their hooves across a sheet of rough plywood. Except there’s no wood down here besides those mahogany doors, and I can see them both from where I’m standing, and now the noise is louder and closer and almost sounds like rattling. Like wheezing. Like breathing.
Stop it, a voice in my head suddenly scolds. You’re panicking. You’re all just panicking. There are all kinds of things that could be, and none of them have to be anything alive. Maybe it’s some kind of machine. Maybe it’s just the building settling. Maybe you’re just imagining things.
And for a few blissful seconds, I almost believe it. I almost believe I’m just making this whole thing up, that there’s no shuffling and no thumping and there’s nopony down there and there’s no abandoned city at the bottom of the ocean. And then the shuffling stops and one last thump rings out, and all the air in my lungs is sucked down the hallway towards the foyer and the terminal and whatever the hay that noise is. I can still see the doors, closed tight and motionless. I can see a hundred shadows splayed out across every surface in front of them. I count off four more heartbeats, one by one.
And then somewhere close by, I hear a loud, leathery buzz.
And at the end of the hallway, one of the shadows moves.
Chestnut’s reaction is instantaneous. Before my body even knows to send a flurry of goosebumps across my skin, his face pales to a ghostly white under his fur, and his eyes go black with horror. “Oh, shit…” he breathes without moving his lips. Then he lowers his cannon and hooks his foreleg around my neck, and takes off in the opposite direction.
“Run!” he screams as he shoves me forward. “Go, now!”
I don’t need to be told twice. The hallway blurs around me as I sprint towards the opposite end. Two pairs of hoofsteps follow close behind me, and far in the distance the buzzing noise returns, interspersed with heavy thuds of metal against carpet and the same scraping sound from before. My heart is heaving and I’m running faster than I ever have before, and yet every step just makes the angry drone louder and louder. Something is in the hallway with us. Something is chasing us down.
“Left!” Chestnut yells as we reach the end of the corridor, and I’ve almost finished the turn before a spray of water soaks me to the bone and reflex makes my hooves lock up. There’s a massive block of stone about two inches from my nose, and fresh horror dawns on me as I realize why it’s there. I can see the stairs we’re supposed to take not even five yards away, but between them and us is at least two tons of fragmented concrete and jagged metal pipes still spewing their contents all over the walls. Chestnut lowers his shoulder and shoves it against one of the smaller chunks of rock, but nothing gives even a millimeter. Our escape route is blocked. There’s no way out.
I lock eyes with Chestnut, and just one glance at the look of despair rolling through his eyes is nearly enough to make me give up hope too. When he looks down and sees the dark maroon stain oozing from the fresh graze on his foreleg, something even darker seeps into him, pooling on his face as an amalgamation of pain, terror—and resignation. In the same instant, something else passes through him too, something that makes him set his jaw and suck in a hoarse but steady breath, even as fear still has its way with him behind his glassy gaze. He looks at me with lifeless brown eyes, and through my reflection in his irises, I see him come to a decision.
“Right,” he wheezes. “Go right.”
I spin around and make it three steps before I realize the other end of the hall ends ten feet away in a plain wooden door. Before I can tell Chestnut there’s no way out over there either, the door glows white and swings open of its own accord, revealing a storage closet that doesn’t look big enough for two ponies, let alone three. When I look back again, I’m met by a little golden box floating in midair in front of me. Without a word, Chestnut shoves it towards me, only pausing to make sure I’ve got the strap threaded through its top looped around my neck. When he sees that I do, he puts one foreleg on my shoulder and the other on Link’s, and starts pushing us backwards. His eyes are red around the edges.
Comprehension dawns on me far too late. “Chestnut!” I yell into deaf ears as we cross the closet’s threshold. “Chestnut, wait!”
But Chestnut doesn’t wait. He doesn’t even look at me. He just gives us one final push and turns around and steps out to the middle of the hallway, and watches as the carpet darkens in front of him and the lights fizzle and flash overhead. I have just enough time to watch him draw his weapon, watch something dark and amorphous rocket around the corner, force my teeth apart and scream after him.
And then he lets out a despondent grunt and kicks out with a hind leg, and the closet door slams shut. The last syllable in his name tears a hole in my throat, and the room goes black.
In that first instant after the light vanishes, it’s impossible even to draw breath. Someplace far away, my hooves are still pressed into smooth, bare concrete, but between that place and the rest of me are a hundred million miles of freezing cold and burning skin, and a darkness so thick I can feel its weight bowing my back and locking my knees. I close my eyes and open them again, and for the briefest of moments I feel the sting of salt peck at my tongue. Before I can figure out why, though, the tinkling chime of an activating spell reaches my ears, and a heartbeat later the closet is bathed in wavering green light emanating from Link’s horn. His cocky bravado is gone, replaced by an almost juvenile expression of confusion and unease, and the shadows dancing through the room throw deep lines into his eyes and cheeks that make him look about a hundred years old at the same time.
A gentle thump against the door draws both our attentions back towards it, and once my head clears a bit, I can hear voices murmuring outside. Or actually, now I listen closer, just two of them. The first I know pretty well, but the second, a low, ragged voice that just keeps on muttering no matter what the other says, is one I recognize far too quickly.
“We don’t want any trouble,” Chestnut says, with the tone of a pony trying to keep calm and gradually failing at doing so. “W-We don’t mean no trespass. We just…”
A furious hiss slices off the end of his assurance, and Chestnut’s shudder vibrates through the whole door. The thump I heard before must’ve been him backing into it. “I promise I won’t do nothing,” he whimpers. “You can have my gun, just d…just d-don’t hurt me. Just lemme g-”
The thing on the other side of the door growls and screeches, and then a bone-jarring bang sends me clanging back into an empty metal shelf as the room goes dark again. I hear Link curse as Chestnut cries out in pain, and a moment later a second violent blow makes the door squeak on its hinges, the impact paired with another grunt from the chocolate-brown colt two inches of warped wood away. When the green tint returns to my vision, I still can’t see anything of what’s going on outside aside from the horrible images flashing across my mind’s eye, but at least I can finally see what made the lights go out. Link has part of his magic still channeling light into his horn, but the rest of it is occupied with holding up a black iron crowbar six inches in front of his nose, the curved end tilted towards the door. He and I look at each other, and shining in his eyes I can finally see the fear that’s been clawing at my stomach ever since I woke up surrounded by flames and the endless depth of the sea.
And despite everything that’s happened, despite where we are and what we’ve been through and the soft, pitiful groans wafting through the lightless crack below the door, something about that look in Link’s eyes puts me at ease. I can’t explain it, but in that moment just the thought that somepony else feels exactly what I’m feeling right now is enough to comfort me and shore me up a little. And so in that moment, just that single moment, the claws loosen and fall away, and I can breathe again. But just like the trip in the bathysphere, the fantasy has to run its course, and the moment has to end. Another low hiss out of sight sets the talons of the beast inside us drumming against my ribs again, and the trembling, nearly incoherent plea for mercy that I hear spill out of Chestnut’s mouth makes them intertwine between them. My spine tenses and locks up, Link raises his crowbar, and we wait for one second. Two seconds.
Unlike most mares my age, I’m no stranger to injuries. When I was a foal, our living room might as well have been a triage ward for all the cut, bruised, and battered miners that would file through every evening at seven. I’ve seen ponies with everything from headaches to hernias to ugly gashes in their backs that glistened crimson under the dusty overhead lamp my mother always used when she needed to take care of a patient. Once I was about twelve, I even broke a bone in my own leg when I fell fifteen feet out of a tree. I can still remember the jarring, nauseating crack as I hit the ground, still feel the white-hot pain that flared up from my forehoof all the way into my neck. I know what it looks like when ponies get hurt. I know what it feels like to get hurt myself.
Nothing I’ve ever seen at home, though, prepared me for what happens next. I hear the strike whistle through the air, and when it makes contact, a wet ripping sound—like somepony tearing a soggy burlap sack in half—soaks through the door and seems to pool around my head. Instead of screaming, Chestnut only lets out a long, low moan that echoes in the hallway and in my mind, like what I know was the sound of flesh being rent apart did just moments ago. Vertigo rolls over like a fifty-foot wave, and for a long moment I’m almost positive I’m going to be sick. I try to think the dizziness away and force my hooves to keep holding me up just a few seconds longer, but even after Chestnut and the monster that just killed him fall silent, the gentle splash of liquid—of blood—of Chestnut’s blood—against the floor is impossible to block out. I’m no stranger to injury, and now that I’ve survived a zeppelin crash in the middle of Eternity’s Crossing, I’m no stranger to death either. But there’s one thing I haven’t experienced, was never meant to experience, never would’ve experienced if I hadn’t gone into the tower and climbed into that bathysphere and let my stupid, brainless pride talk me into pulling that lever, and that is murder. I just heard Chestnut be murdered. And now-
My skin prickles, and the breath I take in seems as loud as a cannon shot. Did I really just hear…
“He’s still alive,” Link whispers. Chestnut is still alive. Still moving. Still breathing.
Still pressed up against the door, begging to be let go. But the thing holding him doesn’t answer, and the hacking cough that rattles out of his throat tells me he doesn’t have long to wait. Doesn’t have long at all, actually. Just a single moment that will run its course and, like all other moments, inevitably end. I get maybe two seconds to silently apologize to Chestnut for what’s happened to him because of us, and then the room is filled with shouts and tearing skin and smashing, splintering wood. And after that, all I can do is stare, because staring back at me is the barbed tip of a yellow metal hook, its whole length clouded by the haze of dust from the door it just smashed through and coated with the viscous remains of the pony it had to go through to get there.
The hook pauses, twitches, and then jolts down slowly towards the floor, and the abused wood shrieks and shatters in its path. Chestnut retches out his last breath as something heavy splatters against the ground, and when the gash in the door reaches a foot in length, the hook catches in the grain and, after a few twists and jerks, is yanked violently back out. With the last thing holding it up removed, the body outside is left to crumple in front of the door. I catch a glimpse of red fabric as it slips by the cut opened in the door, a flash of brown fur as the pony I followed blindly into this place collapses and doesn’t move again, and then the city is at peace once more. The light from Link’s horn throws a ghastly pallor over everything in sight. A bitter metallic scent hangs around my nose, and the edges of the gash in the door gleam dark maroon.
And standing just beyond it, visible only in the thin stripe of Link’s light that manages to slip through the door, is a thin, brick-red pegasus mare with matted fur and crumpled wings. Her legs and chest are swathed in tattered red fabric, and even in the state it’s in, I can tell the dress it used to be was beautiful. No amount of Manehattan fashion, though, could’ve redeemed the head sprouting out from beneath the rags. One side of her face is pale and dirty but otherwise normal enough, and the eye that pokes out beneath a thinly lined brow is a vibrant, almost luminescent shade of green. The other side, however, is mangled beyond all recognition by a bulbous white tumor that twists her snout unnaturally to the left and covers her entire cheek and most of her forehead. The weight of the growth tilts her whole head over to that side, and the stench—an invasive blend of stale antiseptics and rotting flesh, layered over by the slightest scent of roses—sends my stomach spinning off into the deep again.
It takes the mare a moment to notice me, but once she does I can see the revelation ripple through her whole body as she blinks her one eye and lets out a low, throaty wheeze. She spends at least ten seconds—twenty-five heartbeats—staring at me before she blinks again, and the moment I start to feel like she’s looking straight through me, she lifts her head back up, takes a half-step back, and stands up straight without ever turning away.
“Is it someone new?” she croaks. She waits for a moment more, opens her mouth as if to speak again, and then throws her head back with a blood-curdling shriek that numbs every inch of skin I own. The hooks on her forelegs snap out and lock into place when they’ve even with her hooves again, and before I can even blink, she leaps forward and attacks. The cleaner hook smashes into the door and tears a hunk of wood free, and then a pinkish blur around her opposite hoof takes another chunk with it as it passes by the same spot. The door squeaks and tries to resist, but the mare keeps hacking away at it, dismantling it piece by piece in a mad attempt to reach me.
And yet even as instinct takes over and a burning, primal urge to flee fills me out from head to hoof, I still don’t move. Part of it is just cold, emotionless logic: there’s no point in running because there’s nowhere to run. Link couldn’t keep quiet enough and Chestnut couldn’t protect us, and now we’re backed into a corner waiting for the last few seconds of our lives to fall away like the thin wooden door that’s, for just a few finite moments, prolonging it. Beneath that, though, there’s the other part: the one that’s nailed my hooves to the ground and that’s forcing my eyes to stay open, the one that gritted my teeth in the terminal and ground me to a stop on the runway and nearly drowned me in the middle of the ocean. Some ponies can look death in the face and laugh, and that other part is what makes me one of the ones who can’t. Because it’s that other part that chokes me up and strikes me dumb every time I’m surprised by something, every time I have to think on my hooves to get out of a sticky situation. It’s that other part of me that controls me now. That always controls me when I get scared.
I turn around slowly, blinking like an idiot. Link is hunched over by the wall, right in front of a short vertical crack in it that wasn’t there when we came in. He works his forehooves into the gap and arches his back as he wrenches something away, and then the crack widens into a hole. It’s a square air vent, barely big enough for a pony Link’s size to squeeze into. Once the crawlspace is open, he spins around and turns his big, green eyes on me again.
“Ruby, come on!” he hisses, but the words quiver and ripple in the air. I stare at him for a moment with my mouth hanging open and splinters peppering the small of my back. Move, a distant voice says. Move, you idiot. You’re acting insane.
“Ruby, come on, get in!”
Ruby, you’re acting insane.
I shut my eyes as tight as they’ll go, and suddenly the world becomes real again and a bolt of lightning blasts through my spine. I reach the vent in two steps and dive in headfirst, just in time to hear something buck the closet door clean off its hinges. I hear a shout and the soft crunch of metal against bone, and then a moment later another body enters the tunnel and another set of hoofsteps intermingle with mine. I don’t have enough room to turn around and see who it is, so I don’t bother to try. I lie flat on my belly and scramble through the crawlspace as fast as I can, bouncing and banging off the ceilings and walls at every turn and T-junction I come to. All that’s left of my mind is white noise, and all that’s left of my pulse is a sickening vibration that sweeps through my limbs and prickles down my back and screams at me to move move move move move.
By the time I reach the end of the vent, it’s anypony’s guess how long I’ve been in it. I’m hardly even aware enough to catch myself when I stretch out my forelegs to pull myself forward and instead find them flailing around in open air as I fall towards a musty red carpet. My focus returns pretty quickly once I land, though, because it’s then that I look back up at the vent and realize I can still hear hoofsteps echoing out of it, too fast to run away from and too close to hide anywhere their owner wouldn’t find me in an instant. For a second or two, I think about trying for it anyway, but when I listen closer and the sound of ragged, heaving breaths reaches my ears as well, all my strength drains away, and I burn every ounce of what’s left taking a single step back and locking my eyes on the tunnel’s exit.
A few more thumps sound out, and then a shadow appears on the vent’s inner wall, growing larger and wider and more detailed the closer the pony gets. I see an unkempt mane, an outstretched hoof, something metallic flash out of the darkness, and then Link practically launches himself out of the vent, coated from head to tail in dust and panting like a sun-baked dog. His crowbar is still right by his side and enveloped in his magic, and as he whips around to stare at the vent with me, it swings aimlessly right past my nose, leaving behind it the slightest scent of putrescence and rose petals.
It’s a good thirty seconds before either of us has the courage or the strength to look away from the now-silent vent. Both of us turn to face each other at the same time, he with the first few stages of hysteria kicking on in his eyes, and I with a look that probably isn’t a whole lot different. Link’s lips are moving, and every so often an understandable syllable slips out, but he spends another half a minute catching his breath before he can finally form a few of them into words.
“Ru…Ruby,” he says faintly. “Ruby, I…Ch-Chestnut…Ruby, I-I didn’t mean...”
Link only gets halfway through our first coherent thought in the last five minutes before the lights in the ceiling, the ones I hadn’t even looked at before now, gradually begin to dim. Before the room can go completely dark, though, the whole far end of it lights up and throws a flickering white glare over both of us, and once we go quiet we can hear the distant rattle of a film projector. As the projector warms up and the light in front of me begins to flicker, my gaze shifts towards the thick maroon drapes that surround the screen and cover the walls, and a moment later I finally notice the pair of huge mahogany doors that sit firmly closed behind me. I have one half of a moment to think, the other half to remember why those doors look so familiar, and then a blaring rush of orchestral music blasts out from some unseen speaker, and the screen flares into life.
The first image that comes up reminds me of the slideshow in the bathysphere: plain and unmoving, with just a single line of black text that reads “FROM THE DESK OF RYDER”. This time, though, the slide only stays up on the screen for a few seconds before fading away, and in its place unfolds a clean, black-and-white shot of a mostly bare office containing only a high-backed chair, a side table with a small reading lamp on it, and a giant wooden desk set in front of a darkened, unblemished wall. A unicorn mare is standing in front of the desk, her mane jet-black and the rest of her fur dyed a mottled shade of gray by the film’s faded hue, and as the camera pans towards her, she turns her head and faces it with an intensity that makes me wonder whether she somehow knows that I’m here. Déjà vu plays havoc with my mind for a couple seconds, until I realize where I’ve seen that intensity before, glaring down at me from the cold, lifeless eyes of a monster the size of a freight train. This mare is the same one whose statue was in the tower, and the confidence and authority radiating out from her is exactly what I would’ve expected from somepony who’d build that big of a monument to herself.
“My name is Onyx Ryder,” she begins, her voice loud and imperious with not a single syllable out of place, “and all my life I have asked myself the same questions: what use is talent, when nopony may realize it? What use is vision, when nopony is allowed to see? What use is a gift, when we as a race are too afraid to open it, too afraid of what might find within? For let me assure you, we are gifted, my friends, in our minds, in our bodies, and in our spirits. We have the potential to experiment, to build, to create, to overcome…and yet we squander it. And yet we hide beneath the skirts of higher authority, obey every whim of the oligarchy of the elite. We worship those who deny us our gifts, when they are the very same tyrants who would have us crawl back in our holes and choke on their dust, rather than lift our heads above theirs and look to the stars.”
The mare takes a deep breath, and moves away from her desk, taking a leisurely pace towards the chair off to the side and seeming to watch as the frame shifts to accommodate her. “In the end, what separates a mare from a slave?” she asks, her gaze pointed off towards the ceiling. “Money? Power?” Now she turns, and fiery passion emanates from her eyes. “No,” she proclaims, and her next words are drawn out as if she means to brand them onto our memories in a place where we’ll never forget them. “A mare chooses. A slave obeys.”
There’s a pause as the mare sets her jaw and stares us down again, and I turn to look at Link. The baffled look on his face is enough to tell me what I want to know, and he throws a helpless shrug on top of it just to enforce the point. Meanwhile, Onyx has started talking again, and instead of flaring up with the fervor of her words, now her voice is cold, almost as if she’s angry at something. “My little ponies, we are, all of us, slaves. And why? Because we have sacrificed the freedom of choice for the safety of passivity,” she derisively declares. “Because the rich and the powerful have told us to jump, and we have asked, ‘How high?’ Because we have pushed for change and strived for progress, and our princesses and our gods have only pulled our chains tighter, telling us that we have nothing to fear, nothing to want, nothing to desire but obedience and ignorance and bliss.”
Onyx sighs again and starts to walk again, and in her eyes and the corners of her mouth, I can see the fire start to seep back in. “I rejected those answers. I chose something different. I chose the impossible. I chose to use my potential: to experiment, to build, to create…”
The image of the screen flickers ever so slightly, and Onyx smiles. “And so,” she murmurs as her image begins to fade. “I created a city.”
The last word is barely out of Onyx’s mouth before the transition finishes, and once the new scene comes up, a gasp sneaks out of my mouth. The neat, conservative office is gone, and in its place is a sweeping, panoramic view of the exterior of the city, of all the buildings we just passed by in our bathysphere. “A city,” Onyx goes on, enraptured either with her accomplishments or with herself, “where the artist would not fear the censor, where the brave would not be inhibited by the weak, where the great would not be constrained by the small. And in choosing to dedicate your lives to preserving and inhabiting her, you have chosen to become great as well.”
The screen goes dark as the camera moves into the same tunnel we entered at the end of our trip in, and a moment later Onyx reappears. “My name is Onyx Ryder,” she says warmly, “and I bid you welcome. Welcome to the evolution of ponykind. Welcome to the most extraordinary chapter in your commendable lives. Welcome to a world where anything is possible.”
Onyx smiles again, and suddenly I feel like I’m staring into the hungry maw of a shark. “Welcome to my city,” she says. “Welcome…to Harmony.”
The clicking of the film reel shuts off abruptly, and is quickly replaced by a low mechanical hum. The lights turn on and the picture goes dark, and as the hum gets louder, the screen starts to rise into the ceiling, revealing a picture window of the same size that’s been hidden behind it the whole time. And I tell myself right then that I don’t need to see what’s outside, that I’m not any braver than Link is and looking out that window isn’t going to prove otherwise, but even as I order myself to turn around and my mind screams at me not to move from this spot until somepony explains to me what the hay is going on, my hooves are operating on orders that go above anything I can tell them from the inside of my head. Even with everything that’s happened, some secret part of me has to know. Some incontrollable part of me has to see.
And I do see. I walk up to the window and I look outside, and I see about ten stories of ornate balconies and sliding glass doors, and far below them a wide open plaza where the floor is tiled with the shapes and patterns of the continents and the center is occupied by a majestic fountain sculpture of an alicorn with both forelegs stretched through the ceiling. But fear is never born from what we see first. We’re not afraid of what we know; we’re afraid of what we don’t know. We’re afraid of what we see last, of the little details that don’t seem out-of-place until we look at them closer and realize what they really are, what we’ve truly gotten ourselves into. And in this plaza, those little details are the dark stains splattered across the balconies, and the jagged holes in the glass doors, and the way the statue in the fountain, stained yellow by time and surrounded by filthy water the color of sewage, doesn’t seem like it’s reaching for the stars as much as trying to escape from the muck underneath it, trying to get out before it’s dragged underwater and suffocated.
And then, before and behind and beyond all that, there are the bodies. Bodies sticking out of windows, bodies crumpled on the floor ten stories below, bodies hanging from balconies and from the fountain and from makeshift gallows all around it, their fur painted violent shades of red and their chests covered by unreadable cardboard signs. Bodies of ponies with twisted necks and broken legs, ponies with sightless eyes that will never close and open wounds that will never heal. The room spins, a cold sweat rushes across my body, and suddenly I can’t seem to get enough air in my lungs no matter how hard I try to take more in. My legs are barely good for keeping me upright anymore, let alone walking, so instead of turning away from the window and running until my legs give out and my heart bursts, I just lean my forehead against the cool, clean glass and stare down at the fountain. Every inch of me wants to shut my eyes and block out what I see, but at the same time I can’t bring myself to look away.
At some point, I hear Link step forward and try to look out over my shoulder, and in the corner of my eye I see him recoil and stumble back once he does, his chest heaving and his eyes wide as saucers. After that, my eyes drift around of their own accord, lazily shifting from one corpse to another until they land on a lone one on a penthouse balcony no more than a dozen yards away. The pony there—I can’t even tell whether it’s a mare or a stallion—is lying on their side. A few patchy spots of orangish-yellow fur still cling limply to their flanks, but the rest of their skin is a sickly shade of grayish-green, save for the crusty black scratches and cuts peppering their forelegs and most of their face. Their eyes, glassy and empty though they are, still seem to sparkle and gleam in the light filtering in from overhead, and the longer I look at them, the more they seem to grow, until the only thing that fills my vision is the heartless, bloodless, soulless gaze of terror, of agony, of death in those eyes.
Death. Dead. Everypony from the zep is dead. Everypony in this city is dead. I should be dead, and yet I’m not. I should be in Haywaii drinking fruit punch by the sea, and yet I’m here, trapped twenty thousand feet under it in a nightmare that refuses to let me go, a nightmare that I have no help of escaping from.
“What is this place?” I whisper so quietly I can barely hear it myself. I can’t help asking, because I have no definition left for it, because all the little details and all the big ones have convinced me that I can’t, won’t, and shouldn’t know what to call this place, what to think of this place. And so I close my eyes, and I let my words float off through the window, and I stand and I wait for somepony to answer, for somepony to say something in return.
And just a few moments later, somepony does.
“Chestnut, security’s lightin’ up like the Summer Solstice. Where are you?”
Even with the viewing room being big enough to hold the screen that had covered the window a second ago, Link and I nearly bounce off the ceiling for how high we jump at the sudden intrusion of a voice that doesn’t belong to either of us. But when I whip around with my heart thudding like a hummingbird’s, all I see is Link standing right behind me, his eyes darting around the room just as mine are.
Except now, Link’s eyes are on my chest, where there’s a little golden box hanging on a strap that’s all of a sudden digging into my neck. I still have Chestnut’s radio. Until now, I’d completely forgotten about it.
“Chestnut, you all right? Talk to me, sugarcube, what’s goin’ on?”
It takes me a second, but after a bit of examination, I find the button on the radio that Chestnut pressed when he wanted to talk to the mare on the other end. Once I shake my head and get my thoughts unscrambled a bit, I bend my leg around and reach up to touch it. Before my hoof’s barely even left the carpet, though, the radio launches up from my chest and nearly smacks me in the nose as it flies away, the strap yanking through my hair and sending my braid flopping over my shoulder. It doesn’t take me long to figure out where it’s headed, because it doesn’t have very far to go: by the time I look up, the radio is floating in front of Link’s mouth, with a tendril of the aura surrounding it wrapped around the button on the side.
“Who are you?” he hisses, turning his head away from me when I try to grab the radio back. “Where are we, what the…what the hell is this place?”
Even though Link still has the button pressed down, Applejack is still able to talk over him. “How’d you get this radio?” she snaps back, her frustration giving way to anger. “Where’s Chestnut? What did you do with him?”
“Please, we just…” I try to say before Link cuts me off.
“We didn’t do anything to him,” he growls, his voice a lot louder now than it was before. “What the hell do you want from us?”
“I don’t…what in the hay are you talkin’ about?” Now the mare sounds almost offended. Link’s having none of it, though.
“Don’t bullshit me, not again,” he growls back. “Where are we?”
“Would ya just hold up for a sec-”
“No, I don’t wanna hear that shit…” Link mutters.
“I don’t wanna hear that shit again!”
The mare goes silent, and once his scream echoes itself out, so does Link. The way his eyes are closed so lightly makes it look like he’s calm, but the way his chest shakes every time he takes a breath and the way I can see his jaw clench straight through his cheeks say otherwise. He holds the radio pressed up against his forehead for a moment, and then opens his eyes and lets out a long, quivering sigh.
“No more holding up, no more explaining everything later,” he murmurs through his teeth, his voice gaining strength with every word. “I want some answers. I want somepony to tell me where we are, I want somepony to tell me what the hell we’re doing here, and I’m not gonna sit here for one more second waiting for everypony to quit jerking us off and acting like we don’t need to know!”
“Sugarcube, you’re panicking,” the mare on the radio says slowly, once again returning to that motherly inflection I remember from the influence. “Just calm down for a second and let me-”
“Oh, I’m not calm?” Link shouts. “I’m not fu-”
“No, you’re not calm, so just shut up and listen before you set off every splicer in the city!” the mare shouts right back, and this time Link finally pays attention. He huffs out another sigh and lets the radio fall away from his mouth, and then the little tendril of magic lying over the talk button lifts off and dissipates. Over on my end, though, I’m starting to wish I’d been a little more careful about who I let monopolize the radio. What the hay are “splicers”? Is that what the thing was that killed Chestnut?
“You want answers? Well, I want ‘em too,” the mare says. “And until I get mine, you ain’t gonna get yours. Got it?”
After a few moments, Link nods, but it takes him a few more moments to realize that the mare can’t see him. “Yeah, I…I got it,” he replies, his voice thin but still quiet and respectful. He hasn’t completely recovered from the peak of his panic, but at least he’s not teetering on the very tip of it anymore.
“Good,” the mare says. “Now where is Chestnut?”
For the first time, Link looks like he almost doesn’t want to reply. “He…” he tries to say. “S-Something got him, I don’t…”
“Is he dead?”
Link lets off the button again, and soft static fills the room. His eyes are closed again, and much tighter this time.
“Is he dead?” the mare repeats forcefully. Link still isn’t talking, though, and between his outburst and the one I’m about to release all over everypony in earshot, I’ve officially had it with this little standoff he has going. I grab the radio back from Link before he has a chance to strengthen his grip on it, and when I’ve got it hung safely around my neck again, I lift it up with my hoof and, after a moment’s hesitation where my mind replays the sight of a patch of brown fur sliding past a jagged red hole, press down on the talk button.
“Yes,” I say to the mare, my eyes locked unblinkingly on the floor. “He’s dead.”
At first, I think the mare’s gone silent too, but when I bring the radio up to my ear, I can hear her muttering to herself from what sounds like a far distance away, and somewhere in her mumbling I hear that word again: splicers. Link’s lips are still sealed, but now I’ve got enough questions of my own to make up for lost time.
“You’re the ponies from the bathysphere?” the mare finally says nearly a minute later.
“Yeah, we are,” Link interrupts. He doesn’t seem to notice that the radio strap’s still around my neck when he pulls it towards him again, so he also doesn’t notice the fact that I’m glaring at him. “I’m Link, and she’s Ru-”
“So it works, then?”
Once again, Link trails off in mid-sentence. “What?” he asks.
“The thing you came here in, the bathysphere,” the mare clarifies. “It worked, right?”
Link shakes his head and gets his tongue tied in a knot, and I take the opportunity that presents itself. “Yeah, it…it worked fine,” I tell her. “What does that mean?”
I hear a relieved sigh crackle through the radio, but I don’t hear an answer to my question. In fact, I’m not entirely sure the mare on the other end heard me at all. “All right, listen to me,” she says in a commanding tone. “I don’t know either’a you from apple stalks and I reckon you don’t know much about me either, but if either of you wanna get out of there with all your insides in order, you’re gonna have to trust me. I promise I’ll tell ya anything you wanna know once we get you someplace safe, but right now I ain’t got time to talk, and you ain’t got time to listen.”
“Why the hell no-” Link starts to say, but the mare isn’t about to be cut off again.
“Because the longer you stand there shootin’ the breeze, the closer the splicers get to sniffin’ you out!” she shouts. Link’s teeth clack together as his jaw slams closed, and judging by the way the mare’s voice has softened by the time she speaks again, I figure she heard it on her end too. “Look, I know y’all are confused and I know y’all are scared, but I’ve been down here long enough to know that there’s times for standing your ground and fightin’, and now ain’t one of ‘em,” she says. “Just do exactly what I say, and you’ll be fine. I ain’t about to leave you twistin’ in the wind.”
Link doesn’t answer, and I’m pretty sure I know why, because I’m pretty sure we’re both thinking of the last pony who told us to do only what he told us to do.
“You still there, sugarcube?”
Link lifts the radio slowly, and I duck my head and let him pull the strap off my neck again. “Who are you?” he asks one last time, his voice barely above a whisper. “What are you trying to do?”
The radio stays quiet for just a bit too long, enough that I’m about ready to be convinced that we’re never going to know anything about what or who is down here with us. Just as I start to turn towards the entrance doors, though, a faint crackle slips out of the speaker, and for the first and only time since we first saw this city, somepony answers one of our questions.
“My name’s Applejack,” the mare says, “and I’m tryin’ to keep you alive.”
Trust, I’ve noticed, is a fickle thing. It’s easy to come by when there’s no real danger involved, easy to throw around like “love” and “faith” and other words made commonplace by common ponies. Yeah, I love this pony, just like I love potato chips and good pens and a bright, summery afternoon. Sure, I have faith in her, just like I have faith in the sun rising every morning and the moon coming up each night. Of course I trust you, because you seem like a nice guy and you smiled when you said my name.
But when the chips come down and the horseapples hit the fan, suddenly “trust” gets a promotion back up to something worth thinking about. Do I trust this pony to get the job done? Do I trust that pony to keep my secret to herself? Do I trust myself to quit digging my own grave before I lose the opportunity to climb back out of it?
This isn’t something I’m just realizing now. Anyone who’s spent five minutes in modern society knows the difference between public trust and genuine trust. What I have just realized now, though, is that if the stakes get high enough and a mare get desperate enough, eventually she reaches a point where the only thing she needs to genuinely trust somepony is no reason not to. It’s like coming full circle and crossing the same line twice, or reaching the eye of a hurricane after spending hours trapped inside the full fury of the storm. And if I were going to pick a metaphor for what I’ve gone through since I left Canterlot this morning, a raging tropical monsoon probably wouldn’t be a bad choice. I don’t know if that at all justifies my decision to hear our new friend on the radio out, but by this point I’m content to just do what my gut tells me and leave the retrospecting to the philosophers.
“Where are you now?” Applejack asks, a moment or two after her introduction isn’t met with a reply. Link’s transition to full-blown head case is finally complete, so for the first time I’m free to talk to our new non-enemy however I want.
“We’re in a theater,” I tell her. Link never moves to stop me or grab for the radio again, but I keep one eye on him all the same. “I don’t know what it’s called. There’s a picture window behind the screen, though. Big wooden doors at the front too.”
“And a little movie goin’ on ‘bout the wonders and blessin’s of Harmony?” Applejack goes on, with the air of somepony leading us towards an answer she already knows. I go ahead and say yes anyway.
“All right…” Applejack says in a murmur that quickly gains strength. “All right, good. Here’s what you’ll do. Go over to the window and look down. There should be a plaza down there with a fountain in the center.”
A pair of glassy, empty eyes flashes through my mind, and the knot in my stomach cinches itself tight again. I look back up at the window, but I’m not moving an inch back towards it as long as I’ve got a choice. “Yeah, we…we saw that.”
“You see that metal door on the far side of it? Little square thing with somethin’ like a ship’s wheel on the front?”
A choice I apparently don’t have anymore. I shuffle forward and do my best to avoid looking at any of the corpses littering the clearing, but my gut rolls and my hooves tingle all the same. “Yeah, I see it.”
“Anypony around it?”
Nopony alive. “Looks clear to me.”
“Good,” Applejack says, “‘cause that’s where you’re headed. Go out the door left of the window and follow the hallway.”
With a sigh of relief, I turn away from the window and look to the left, towards a hulking metal door with the word “Securitas” printed on the front. “You’ll pass by a few shops and such, and then you’ll come to a bank of elevators,” Applejack continues. “Take one of ‘em as far down as it’ll go, and once you get out, turn left first chance you get. After that, you’ll be on a balcony right above the plaza. It’s right below y’all, ‘bout three, four stories down. You might be able to see it if you lean forward far enough.”
After about half a second of deliberation, I decide that I’ll just have to take Applejack’s word for that. “Then what?”
“There’ll be more elevators behind you that you can take down to the plaza. From there, it’s a straight shot across to the door. Once you’re through, call me up on the radio again, and I’ll keep you steerin’ straight long enough to get you over to me. You got all that?”
Do I got all that? If she means whether I understand it, then yes. If she means whether I’ve fully come to grips with everything it entails, I hope she’s got somewhere comfortable to sit tight and wait for a day or six. “What if we get lost?”
A burst of static hisses out of the radio immediately after I let off the button, and for a second or two I can hear another faint voice in the background. “What’s that?” Applejack says once the voice goes away.
“I said, what if we get lost?”
“You won’t get lost,” she answers in a rush. “I’ll keep an eye on ya, make sure you’re not wanderin’ off.”
“What if we do wander off?”
“Then I’ll give y’all a shout and point ya in the right direction.”
“You sure about…”
“Yes, I’m sure about this,” Applejack retorts, and now I can tell her patience is starting to wear thin again. “Just keep your tails on for a few minutes, and you’ll be fine.”
I snap my jaw shut and comb through my brain for something else to stall her with, but no matter how much I try to stir up my thoughts, nothing good floats to the top. I’m a couple seconds from conceding defeat when one more question surfaces.
“What if that thing comes back?”
Applejack goes quiet, and I shift my gaze up to Link. His eyes are dim and oddly passive, much like the question he just asked. “I’ll do what I can from here,” the radio eventually replies. “You just worry about getting to that door.” There’s another pause, and then Applejack sighs. “For what it’s worth, you can trust me.”
Maybe it’s not trust I’m feeling in my stomach. Maybe the word I’m looking for sounds more like “desperation” or “panic”. Maybe it’s more of a phrase, like “no other options”, or “what else can I do”, or “exactly how much deeper do I want to dig that grave of mine”. Or maybe it doesn’t matter, because maybe the only thing worth thinking about in a place like this is how I’m going to live through the next ten minutes. Trust is fickle, but it’s also powerful, and right now trusting Applejack is the only chance I have of surviving that long. If she’s telling the truth, I’ll know we’ve got at least one friend down here. If she’s telling the truth, we might finally be safe.
And if she’s not…well, we won’t be any deader than we would be on our own.
“We’re on our way,” I say into the radio.
“I’ll be waitin’,” Applejack replies. Once I let go of the radio and let it swing back against my chest, she adds, “And if you wouldn’t mind…keep that radio on.” I mutter some kind of affirmative answer bookended by static, and then we’re alone again. Once the silence sinks in enough for my pulse to drop down to its normal pace, Link readies his crowbar and points a “You’re the boss” look in my direction. A couple deep breaths and a quick silent pep talk later, I point myself towards the exit and oblige him.
It takes me a few steps to realize that I have no idea how the hay I’m supposed to open a solid steel door with no visible locks or hinges, but soon enough that problem goes ahead and solves it. When I’m about three feet from the door, I feel a faint tingle pass over my ankles like I just walked through an invisible wire, and by the time I connect that electric sensation with the hair-raising effect of a magical spell, the door has already opened on its own accord, disappearing up into the ceiling with a grinding squeal. On the other side of it is a long carpeted hallway bordered by boarded-up shops, just like Applejack said they would be. So far, so good in the trust department.
I step over the threshold of the door and into the hall, and Link follows close behind me, his breathing shallow and his eyes darting over anything and everything in sight. He’s completely lost it, I find myself thinking, and although it’s probably not something I should be all that happy about, that realization still comes with a certain sense of relief. All things considered, he’s a lot quieter this way.
Of course, I have to grant him the fact that I’m teetering right on the edge of the same canyon he just swan-dove into, and that this hallway isn’t helping matters any. The pony-to-corpse ratio’s a lot closer to my comfort zone, at least. Whatever it was that killed all those ponies in the plaza must not have ever gotten back here, because I don’t see one bloodstain or body the whole way through. In fact, I don’t see any sign that anypony has been back here in years. The floor is choked with dust and bits of rubble and splintered wood, and each window and door in the abandoned shops nearby—more than one of which has jets of water spraying through cracks in the plywood boards covering them—is plastered all over with posters of a unicorn stallion silhouetted by a dramatic yellow sunrise and, on top of those, plain white bulletins with words like “CONDEMNED” and “REPOSSESSED BY ORDER OF EQUESTRIAN EUGENICS” stenciled in black across them. The rest of the city felt wounded and corrupted, but this part just feels abandoned.
My hoof dips into something cold and wet, and the shudder that runs down my spine is much bigger than the puddle I just stepped in should’ve warranted. When I take a breath a moment later, my stomach drops again; it seems louder in the still air, more rasping and more desperate. I can hear Link breathing behind me too, in short but steady gulps that betray how fast his heart must be racing. I can feel every speck of dust floating around me, scraping along my coat and squirming underneath my mane. I breathe in again and breathe out again. I wait for someone to reply, someone to cough, someone to step out from a doorway and reveal their presence, and no one does. I’m alone. I’m completely alone. There’s absolutely no one back here, and yet all around me I can sense their eyes watching me anyway, invisible inside every shadow and behind every window.
Suddenly, I need to hear them, need to see them, need someone to just tell me what I need to be scared of, because right now I have no idea what’s real and what’s not real and what I can or can’t see hiding out of sight, and I’m about to go crazy trying to figure it out. I lift my hoof up and rest it on my chest, and when I speak, my words don’t come out as a shout, but as a whisper.
“Applejack?” I hiss into the radio. “Applejack, you still there?”
I hear static, the sound of something thumping against a receiver somewhere, and then like a tiny blue flower in a sea of thorns, Applejack’s voice blooms from the speaker. “Yeah, I’m here,” she replies. “Why, what’s the matter?”
I try to keep from sighing too audibly, but I wouldn’t bet the mine on Applejack not having heard it. “Nothing,” I say quickly. “Just…checking in.”
“All right, then,” Applejack replies after a moment of somewhat mystified silence. “You reach the elevator yet?”
Heat flushes through my face, and I speed up my pace from a slow prowl into a trot. “Just about.”
“Well, get a move on, sugarcube. That splicer’s still waitin’ in the wings somewhere…no tellin’ when she’ll be back for an encore. Y’all watch each other’s backs out there.”
I don’t know whether Applejack meant to warn us or just to light a fire under our tails, but either way she gets what she wants. It only takes me a couple seconds to cover the last few yards to the end of the hallway, where four identical sets of elevator doors are waiting for me, each pair bulging out a bit from the wall and built out of golden rods and spirals woven together in ornate patterns. Through the gaps in the bars, I can see all the way to the back of all four elevator shafts, but more importantly, I can’t see any of the elevators that should be blocking that view. I look for a rope or a crank to pull, but all I find are little panels embedded into the wall next to each door, each with two softly glowing buttons inlaid in the center.
For a second or two, I’m completely clueless about what I’m supposed to do next, but then I remember the movie screen that turned on all by itself, and the little stripe of invisible magic that lifted a metal door the size of a water buffalo. On a hunch, I walk up to one of the panels and push the bottom button, and sure enough, I look up a moment later to see a shadowy, cylindrical cage slowly descending down the shaft, its motor puttering away somewhere out of sight. Automatic elevators, my internal voice dryly proclaims. Now I’ve seen everything.
The elevator car creaks to a halt once it’s level with the floor, and the doors open with a tiny ding. Once I’m inside, I quickly find another panel just like the one outside, only this one has about a dozen buttons on it. You’ll come to a bank of elevators, Applejack’s instructions echo inside my head. Take one of ‘em as far down as it’ll go. Looks like that’s the sixth floor, then. I reach out and press the button labeled “6”, and with a slight shudder, the elevator kicks into gear again. The doors are nearly closed before I realize Link isn’t on the right side of them.
I throw my forehooves out and force the doors back open, and try to make sure the look I give Link once they slide back out of sight is as unsubtle as possible. Even then, though, he still doesn’t wake up and smell the seawater. As a matter of fact, he doesn’t do anything at all, just stands there a good five feet from the elevator with a shadow over his eyes that makes him look almost feral.
“You coming?” I ask him, putting the same force into my words as I did into my gaze. Link answers by way of not moving a single freaking muscle and, as an added bonus, pointing his wild stare towards me. His eyes—the same ones I’d compared to emeralds not even a full twelve hours ago—look more like dull, swirling spheres of pond scum now, and when I make the mistake of looking into them, it isn’t long before I feel myself start to get sucked in too, like his fear is contagious and I’m slowly being infected by it every second.
And yet, the longer I stare at him and he stares at me, the more convinced I become that it isn’t fear at all I’m seeing, but rather something oddly familiar that’s congealing and solidifying into a kind of cold determination. Either way, it still makes the fur on the back of my neck stand up, and given what’s happened in the last few minutes, that’s not even close to being on the list of things I need right now.
“Link, for Celestia’s sake, quit being a drama queen and just get yourself together already,” I growl, my last reserve of patience suddenly empty. “We don’t have time for this.”
Finally, a little blip of intelligence bubbles to the top of those algae-infested lakes, and Link blinks a few times before looking down at the floor. “I…” he starts to say.
“Well, whaddya know, Peter Pan’s back from Neverland. That’s just super. Way to go. Great job,” I say. “Get in the elevator.”
I get a few more seconds of silence and a couple hard swallows, and then whatever it was that was rolling around in Link’s head sinks down into the bog, and a glimmering sheen of passivity returns to his gaze. “Yeah,” he says with an awkward cough, and without further ado he steps into the elevator and reaches in front of my chest to push the button for the fifth floor. “Sorry,” he mutters without looking at me, his voice still a bit distant while my own silently begs to be allowed to chew him out again. As much as I’d like to grant it that pleasure, though, I manage to restrain myself. There’s something about Link that just makes him hard to stay mad at for long. It feels too much like kicking a lost puppy who won’t stop following you home. A puppy that’s liable to get us both killed sooner rather than later. Whatever it was I did to you, Celestia, I’m pretty sure I’m sorry by now.
We pass by a few other floors on our way down, but all I can see of them are a few flickering lights and a lot more free-flowing water than I’m really comfortable with. I’ll grant this place the fact that it’s definitely seen better days, but when a city built on the ocean floor starts springing leaks, a few buckets and mops just aren’t gonna cut it. And when more than one floor is so submerged that several inches of water seep into the elevator and wash over our hooves as we pass by it, the thought of how much structural integrity this place has left to lose quickly takes a back seat to the thought of buying a one-way ticket to scenic Anywhere-But-Here-Ville.
The sixth floor slides into view behind a thin, green-tinged waterfall, an aftereffect of the water cascading down from the upper floors. I waste a few seconds waiting for the flow to taper off, and then another few building up the courage to force myself through the freezing-cold sheet once I realize it’s not going away. Gritting my teeth and bolting through it in one motion gets me into the hallway all right, but it also gets me a mouthful of seawater and a painful chill down my spine to go with it. I was nearly dry from the crash by then, too. Charming, this Harmony place.
“This thing’s waterproof, right?” I say to the radio.
“Much as anything else down here is,” the radio replies.
And that’s another thing: not one single pony in this sunforsaken place can put anything in simple terms. They have to be cryptic about it. It’s like a fetish or something, like some part of them just has to go all Comic Book Bad Guy on me and speak entirely in riddles. Here’s a crazy thought: if I ask you a yes-or-no question, Applejack, just say “yes” or “no”. Or better yet: say nothing. Say absolutely nothing at all. Just let me keep prattling on to myself out here, because even that’s better than having to go dig out my Honey Oats Super Secret Decoder Ring every two minutes just to figure out what the hay it is you’re talking about. It was a rhetorical question to begin with, for Celestia’s sake!
By the time I finish taking the Princess’s name in vain for the nth time today, it occurs to me that it’d probably help out a lot in the way of efficient communication if I expressed a few of those sentiments out loud to the pony they were directed at. It also occurs to me that efficient communication is right below “filing my forehooves into razor-sharp griffon talons” on my list of priorities at the moment. Usually, the more I try to make my opinions heard, the more I end up making them heard to everyone within a half-mile radius. So in light of that, my better judgment knows that the far smarter option right now is to just wring the water out of my braid again and keep plodding along until I find a nice, quiet place where I can stick my head into a hole in the wall and scream.
“What are you looking at?” I snap at Link as he sidles up beside me. He responds with a slow, heavy blink and an open-mouthed shrug, and another claw screeches down the chalkboard in my head. Maybe I’m just tired. Or hungry. Or wet. Or all three at once, with a nice helping of stress and a few pinches of salt pricking into my eyes. How many different kinds of emotional and physiological trauma do I need to have before it’s morally acceptable to put a hoof through somepony’s larynx?
A question for another time, I suppose. Now is the time to say nothing, hurt nothing, and put one hoof in front of the other, so that’s what I do. I take a deep breath and hold it inside my chest for the first few steps, and when I let it out in a slow, controlled huff, the sound echoes down the hallway and into the intersection a few yards away. Turn left first chance you get, that’s what Applejack said. Okay, great. I’m turning left. I’m keeping my head up, I’m jogging these last few feet to the turn, and…
There’s someone else down here.
The pony I see is hardly more than an afterimage by the time my mind processes the fact that we’re not alone, and the flash of memory that stays with me long enough to go back over and review is nothing more than raw sensation—pink fur, orange mane, darkened face bent into a scowl. In the time it takes for me to even pick up that much, the stranger is gone, galloping off around the corner with an uneven gait muffled by the shaggy, water-worn carpet. I stand stock-still for a moment, waves of adrenaline rolling through my shoulders, and in the distance I hear metal clanging against metal, the harsh, grinding click of something being slotted together. A slight, almost dainty cough wafts around the bend, and then the air stands still. I take one slow step forward, tilt my head, hear nothing, take another step, and then instinct jerks me back and forces me down to the floor as I hear something approaching, something that clatters and squeaks like a rusty old wagon, or like a baby carriage.
Exactly like a baby carriage.
I don’t even believe my eyes at first, but I get much too long a look at this new arrival to be anything but sure that it’s real. As I watch in mute confusion, a rusted iron baby carriage rolls out from the left and rattles across the hallway, coming to a stop a few seconds later with a gentle bump against the opposite wall. Nopony follows it out, nopony shouts after it; I can’t even hear if there’s actually a baby inside. It’s just an ordinary four-wheeled wireframe carriage, sitting in the middle of the hallway, all alone. And despite the fact that every hair on my body is still standing at attention, it only takes a few seconds for caution to be overruled by curiosity.
The carriage’s front end is pointed slightly towards me, so I can’t see enough of the interior to check whether there’s anything alive in it. When I take a few steps closer, the clicking sound I heard returns, but this time it doesn’t sound like it’s coming from the hallway on the left. In fact, the closer I get, the more it sounds like it’s coming from the carriage. I stop short with a good twenty feet to spare and listen for a moment, and as if on cue, the noise ceases too. A second later, though, a hollow, unearthly tone—like something you’d hear from an alien spaceship in a cheesy radio play—emanates from the stroller, and then, inexplicably, a tinkling, soothing melody fills the hallway. The notes are tinny and insubstantial, but I’d know that tune anywhere. Anypony in Equestria would know that tune anywhere.
Hush now, quiet now, it’s time to lay your sleepy head…
My subconscious fills in the words automatically, my mother’s voice seeping through faded memories and singing loud and clear inside my head, and the song echoes out from the carriage and washes over my whole body. I feel weightless, like I’m caught in the thin space between the real world and that of a slowly evaporating dream.
Hush now, quiet now, it’s time to go to bed…
The peaceful lullaby is nonsensical in a place like this, but at the same time some part of it is hypnotizing. Some part of it draws me closer and closer, even as my heart pumps faster and my head begins to fill with air.
Drifting off to sleep, leave your busy day behind you…
“Ruby?” Link murmurs. “Ruby, where are you going?”
A blurry vision of green grass and starry skies soaks into my brain, and suddenly the cold of the stale air and the seawater dripping down my back seems a hundred miles away. I’m not just warm. I’m contented. I’m exhausted. I’m homesick.
Drifting off to sleep, let the joy of dreamland find you…
“Ruby, what’s wrong?”
Wrong. Yes, this is wrong. There’s something very, very wrong here, and yet I’m powerless to resist it, powerless to do anything but keep walking toward the sound like a lamb being led to pasture. I just want one look, that’s all. Maybe there’s somepony in that carriage. Maybe somepony else needs help. I can’t just leave them there. I can’t bear not knowing.
Hush now, quiet now, it’s time to lay your sleepy head…
I have to know. I’m cold, wet, alone, and terrified, and I have to know.
Hush now, quiet now, it’s time to go to bed…
The song slows at the end of the verse, then cuts off with a violent clunk. The whirring, clicking noise returns, but now it’s not coming from underneath the carriage, but rather from inside it. I’m five feet away, and I can finally see inside the carriage, see a gossamer purple liner and a ragged gray blanket, and another one of those magic voice recorders. And no baby. The carriage is empty. The carriage isn’t moving.
The carriage is still ticking.
My blood runs cold, and the floor rolls in synch with my stomach. Five feet to the carriage. Thirty feet back to Link, whose eyes are wide and slowly filling with comprehension. I turn towards him and watch my name form on his lips, just before it punches through the air like a bolt from a crossbow.
“Ruby!” he screams, and fear coils around my spine like a snake. I kick my hooves into gear, and soon that five feet is eight feet, ten, twelve.
I’m fifteen feet away when the carriage explodes.
Heat scorches along my back and throat, and compressed by the unyielding hallway walls, the shock wave might as well as have been a tidal one. The impact scrambles my mind on contact and wipes away any awareness of losing my balance or having my legs swept out from under me, so when I come to a moment later nauseatingly dizzy and deafened by an unending screech, I’m lying on my side facing the wall, with my head pressed into the carpet and throbbing fit to burst. Over the keening in my ears, I can hear a voice somewhere close by, a sour, high-pitched squeal that seems to combine fury, pain, and the wavering, whining tone of somepony about to burst into tears.
“…told me I was gonna be a star…ain’t fair. It ain’t fair! You ain’t no better than me! Who are you anyway, huh? Nobody! She’s mine, you hear me?”
I press my forehooves against my temples and force my head up, and in the dirty brown haze that’s enveloped the hall, I see an earth mare dressed in discolored white lace with pink fur, a light orange mane shaped into a bowl cut, and a thick, dark bracer strapped to her foreleg. The second I catch sight of her, a demented snarl curls onto her face, and she jerks the bracer out from her body to eject a cherry red monkey wrench from somewhere inside it. I have just enough time to sit up, to see her raise the bracer up and drag it along the wall as she lowers her head into a charge.
I squeeze my eyes shut and try to brace myself, but the blow comes much sooner than I expected, and feels more like it came from skin and bone than metal. It still sends me flying off into the wall anyway, though, so by the time I get my bearings and look up again, it’s only just soon enough to see Link’s crowbar whip through the air and smack into the mare’s bracer, only just soon enough to watch him swing again and clobber her on the cheek, the meaty thud sending a spray of crimson arcing across the hallway. The mare hardly even seems to feel it, and with an indignant roar, she aims her next attack at Link’s neck. He ducks under the wrench a split-second before it decapitates him, and counters with a blow to her knee that sends the sickening crunch of shattering bone vibrating all the way down to my soles. That one, the mare feels. She stumbles again and nearly collapses before hopping back a few feet and crouching into a defensive stance, the leg with the bracer on it hanging useless below her chest.
There are so many things in front of me I can’t comprehend that for a moment, my whole brain just ceases to function. Once it’s back in motion, I have to rebuild the scenario from scratch just to even begin to make any sense of it:
We’re heading to meet Applejack and get to safety.
The elevator will take us down to Applejack.
We’re in a hallway leading over to the elevators.
There’s another mare in the hallway with us.
She has a white dress and a red wrench.
She just tried to attack me.
Link just attacked her.
Link just attacked her.
We have to move.
Finally, something to focus on: we have to move. We have to get out of here before she recovers. We have to run away from here just like we did before, except Link doesn’t look like he’s going anywhere. He looks petrified, actually, only beneath that fear is a maniacal look of abject rage. The mare, on the other hand, looks almost pitiful as she hobbles back and forth a ways down the hall, her eyes darting over Link’s rigid frame and her mouth motoring away even as she groans in pain.
“C’moooooon, baby…” she croons. “Just a little taste…don’t be such a square. I deserve it, ya bastard! I’m the star here, I’m the one who’s gonna be up in lights. Just you wait, you see, you’ll all see. It’s my part, it’s my chance to shine, and you. Can’t. Have it!”
Her sneer returns with a vengeance, and with another yell she comes at Link again. I see his shoulders tense, watch him take a step back, and then time seems to slow down as he brings his crowbar around again, as he slams it into her head and another cloud of blood splatters against the wall. When the mare looks up again, part of her jaw is hanging at a sickening, unnatural angle, and all the rage has drained from her eyes, leaving in its place an almost pitiful look of disappointment and pain, like a little foal who’d been sent to bed without supper.
Suddenly, everything is happening too fast. Before I can bring myself to stand, Link is standing over her, and I regain the ability to speak just in time to have my words die in my throat as he raises the crowbar and hits her again, and again, and again. A choked, mottled cough bubbles out of the mare’s mouth, and then Link cries out and slams his weapon down one last time. The mare groans and rolls onto her side, and doesn’t move again.
For a long time after that, none of my senses seem to work right. No matter how much I blink, I can barely see Link through the haze slipping over my eyes, and when he releases his magical grip on the crowbar and lets it fall on top of the mare lying below him, the metallic thump it makes as it bounces off her stomach feels as loud as a freight train. At the same time, though, the tangy scent of blood stings in my nose, and every hair on my body bristles against my skin like twine. Link stumbles back and heaves for breath, but a few seconds later once his pulse has slowed a bit, he shakes his head slightly and starts making his way back towards me.
The fur on the back of my neck stands up, and something solid and blazing hot twinges painfully inside my gut. “Wh...” I try to say.
“Ruby, you okay?”
Link swallows, pauses, then swallows again with a little more effort. “Sorry about pushing you down like that, I...s-she was coming at you and I just...”
I look back at the mare again, whose eyes have gone glassy and dull beneath half-closed lids, and suddenly the haze is gone.
“What did you do?” I whisper. Link’s eyes widen and he keeps talking, but I can’t hear him anymore. The only part of my mind still functioning is the part that sees a pink-furred mare with her skull caved in, and a colt standing in front of me still coated with her blood.
“Link, what did you do?” I shout.
Now he just looks baffled. “What d’you mean, what did I do? She-”
No, not baffled. Offended. He’s offended that I’m not singing his praises for bashing another pony’s brains in. It’s all I can do to look away from him in time to keep from being sick, and when my eyes settle back on the mare my stomach just turns over again. “Stars above, she’s dead…” I whisper to myself.
“What the he-”
“Shut up, Link, she’s dead!” I scream over him, my gut roiling not with nausea now, but with fury. “You killed her!”
Link sputters for a moment or two, and I take the opportunity to let the coals in my chest simmer and heat up again. “Ruby, she was gonna kill you!” he argues back, his voice slipping into an incredulous whine that might as well have been an ice pick shoved into my ear.
“Don’t tell me what she was gonna do, how the hay do you know what she was gonna do?”
“I don’t know, maybe I jumped to conclusions when she charged at you with a monkey wrench!”
“So you charged at her with a crowbar? You broke her leg, Link, how in all creation was she gonna kill anybody with a broken leg?”
Link squeezes his eyes shut, and the expression on his face swings back around to a disbelieving grimace again. “I seriously can’t believe you’re arguing about this.”
“Well, I seriously can’t believe you just murdered somepony, so I’m pretty sure we’re even!” I yell back, although I’m sure the colt flinching a few feet away from me would call it a screech.
“Yes, I am gonna call it that, Link, damn it,” I hiss at him. The curse leaves a bad taste in my mouth even after I spit it out, but with the circumstances being what they are, somehow it still feels justified. “Stars above, who the hay are you?” I go on after Link’s mouth snaps shut and the silence between us grows too heavy to bear. “What kind of pony does that, what kind of pony does something like that?”
For the first time since I’ve known him, Link is truly at a loss for words, but it only takes him a few seconds to find some again. “What kind of pony does that? What kind of…the kind of pony that just saved your life!” he spews. “You’re welcome, by the way!”
“Don’t patronize me, Link, not now,” I growl, my tone black as the bruises I’m one more self-righteous remark away from beating into every inch of him I can reach. I suck in a breath, say a quick prayer to Celestia—to forgive me for all the sins I’ve committed, and for those that I’m about to—and listen for the bell to start the round.
“Why not?” he sardonically replies. “Not like you’re gonna murder me for it, right?”
By the time I get my tongue in working order again, I’m about two inches from Link’s nose, just like I’d been the last time he’d infuriated me right up to the edge of complete madness. I can’t remember whether the adjective my rational side wants to use is “coincidental” or “ironic”, so for the time being I go with the much more attractive alternative of “go buck yourself with a dictionary”.
“Listen to me, you gutless, insensitive, unbelievable-”
It’s a miracle I even hear the radio flicker back to life, and a bigger one still that my first instinct isn’t to smash it against Link’s forehead. “Ruby?” Applejack says, cutting me off just before I use my second swear word of the month.
“WHAT?” I answer through my teeth. To her credit, instead of shutting up, Applejack just answers in turn.
“Sweet mother’a mercy, keep it down!” she hisses. “What the hay’s wrong with you?”
And there it is: the moment I’ve been waiting for, the last straw on my back that snapped it clean in two. I’m trapped in an abandoned and terrifying city underwater, surrounded by piles of corpses and stuck with a colt who sees nothing wrong with adding to them, and the one guiding light I’ve seen the whole time has just asked what’s wrong with me. I’ve been this close to going straight off the deep end, and now—finally—I’ve reached the point where “this close” has become “right here, right now, and all over the place”. I. Am freaking. Done.
“What’s wrong with me?” I repeat, eyes closed and hoof pressed down on the talk button hard enough to crack it. “You know what, Applejack, I think there are a lot of things wrong with me right now. You see, where I come from, we have this wonderful thing called civility, which is what you use when you’re nice to your neighbors and you pay your taxes on time and you try not to make a practice of hitting ponies in the head with blunt objects. Maybe you’ve heard of it.”
“No, I get it, I really do. I have finally figured you ponies out. There’s some part of me—and it’s a crazy part, I know—that, I dunno, likes being civil. Makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. But I’m in a different place now, and you guys have different traditions, and that’s okay. Really. It is. So yes, for a minute there I was just the slightest bit upset about the whole ‘witnessing a murder’ thing, but you know what? That’s normal down here, isn’t it? That’s just what you ponies do, and I can just zip my lil’ trap and deal with that. But, as you can probably tell, I’m not really the most emotionally balanced mare in the stable, so if you all could give me, like, ten minutes to just wrap my brain around this entirely foreign world I’ve been dropped into, that’d be just peachy freaking ke-”
“Ruby, listen to me! This ain’t your fight, they aren’t after you!”
Finally, the red haze lifts from over my eyes, though not thanks to anything Applejack said. Rather, it’s what she isn’t saying, what I can hear being whispered down the hall by harsh, raspy voices that aren’t coming from any radio.
“They travel in packs, Ruby! Get outta there now before-”
Before the whispers become murmurs, then growls, then roars. Before another pair of bedraggled stallions gallop in from the other end of the hallway, both of them unicorns and both of them as filthy and as furious as the mare who came before them. Before they look down and see the body on the floor, and the blood pooling beneath it, and the two dumbstruck refugees standing behind it. All of that is what Applejack was trying to warn me about, and now that I finally realize I should’ve listened, it’s already too late to try.
“It was you!” one of them shouts, his horn crackling to life as he reaches into his threadbare black blazer and pulls out a cannon just like the one Chestnut had. “You ruined it! You took her away!”
“That’s the last straw!” his partner adds, hefting a wrench over his shoulder to emphasize his point before lowering his head and galloping straight for us. “It’s time for your performance review!”
Link scrambles for his crowbar, but he won’t get there in time. Everything’s moving too fast: the stallion, the blood pool, the floor beneath my hooves. We have nowhere to run, no way of fighting back…nothing except a radio and what I sure as hay hope is a miracle on the other end waiting to be called upon.
“Applejack!” I scream into it. “Applejack, what do I-”
I never see it coming. I never finish asking for it. For a long moment, I can’t even comprehend what it is. Somepony howls, a deep, rumbling bellow shakes the entire hall, and then the next thing I know the stallion’s wrench is clattering to the ground and his savage red eyes are suddenly lifeless and dull. He stumbles blindly forward for a few steps before crumpling to the ground with a meaty splat, blood seeping from the jagged red craters left by whatever it was that just blasted through his skull.
“Holy shit!” the other stallion yells once it becomes clear that his partner isn’t getting up. I look up at him just in time to see him raise his weapon at me, but another bellow throws off his aim and draws both our attention towards the hallway the carriage rolled out from, the one that’s right across from where his friend just had his head blown off. The floor begins to shake, the stallion steps forward and looks around the bend, and I’m just about to turn tail and run when his eyes bug out and his jaw drops to his chest. He swears again, raises the cannon, and then at the last possible moment, he dives off to the side and throws his hooves over his head. A split second later, my miracle arrives.
Calling it big would almost be an insult; the thing that comes steaming into view like a runaway train is a behemoth, a hulking mass of steel-plated armor and coarse brown fabric with air tanks and hoses sticking out from its back and a rust-mottled diving helmet over its head. Its first charge misses the stallion by inches, and its inevitable impact with the wall a moment later leaves a two-foot deep crater in the waterlogged plaster. That doesn’t stop the monster, though. If anything, it just makes it even angrier.
The unicorn screams and squeezes off a couple rounds from his cannon, but the metal beast either shrugs them off or never feels them hit. A swing from its right foreleg—which looks like it’s made entirely of metal—sends the stallion scurrying for cover again, but this time he doesn’t make it far. Before his stomach can even hit the ground, the beast lifts its other foreleg and stomps down on his tail, throwing him off-balance and sending him sprawling face-first into the carpet. When the stallion tries to stand up again, the beast swipes his metal leg around again and bats him across the hall, like a giant robotic cat playing with a mouse.
The telltale snap of breaking bone rings out as the stallion hits the wall, and as the beast strides toward him, he can only twitch feebly and moan over what must be a broken spine. From there, the fight ends quickly and brutally: the beast stops over the colt, eyes him almost passively for a moment, and then, ignoring the babbling protests of his victim, raises his foreleg one last time and brings it hurdling down towards his head. I shut my eyes and try to turn my head away, but the sound of the stallion’s skull being crushed beneath the monster’s hoof is still something I know will feature into a lot of my nightmares over the next few decades.
Running is no longer an option, and now even drawing breath is still out on the table. When I open my eyes again, the hallway is silent, and the beast is looking down at what’s left of his foe, a sight that sends whatever’s left in my stomach rushing up into the back of my throat. I do all I can to hold back from spewing all over myself, and in the end I mostly succeed. But despite my best efforts, the smallest of whimpers still slips out of my throat, and that’s enough to make the beast jerk around and finally notice me. An impossibly long moment passes where my terrified reflection in its soulless black faceplate is all I can see, and then another ear-splitting roar blasts out of the beast’s chest. It holds its metal leg aloft and watches as it shudders and transforms into a bulbous, glowing cannon that’s almost as big as I am, then lowers its head and bears down on me with all the fury of a hundred-foot tidal wave.
The part of my brain not occupied with forcing air into my lungs is too small to handle sprinting for the elevator, so my mindless attempt only leads to me tripping over my own legs and falling flat on my back, just in time to see the beast smack Link out of the way and skid to a halt half a yard away, the barrel of his weapon an inch from my forehead. And of all times and places, it’s only now that a clear thought finally coagulates inside the fuzzy mess that was once my mind: This is it. I’m going to die.
And I would’ve died, were it not for another miracle that arrives at just the right time. The beast would’ve cut me down just like the two stallions before, were it not for a small, childlike voice crying out from somewhere out of sight:
“Wait, Mr. B! Waaaaaait!”
Were it not for the little filly who darts between the beast’s legs and scoots over to stand by me, her voice free of fear and her moth-eaten pink dress bouncing up and down with every step. With a small, almost playful grunt, she stands up on two legs and pushes into the cannon with tiny white forehooves, and my heart catches in my throat as I realize how close the foal is to being squashed like a bug. But the beast doesn’t even try to resist her. Even as it angrily rolls its shoulders and sucks in furious, metallic-sounding heaves of air, it allows the filly to gently guide his aim away from me, and the instant she points a pouty look of disapproval up towards its expressionless faceplate, it jerks the cannon back underneath its chest, where it quickly rearranges itself back into an ordinary-looking foreleg.
“It’s okay, Mr. Bubbles,” the filly says, “she’s not a bad mare.” Her voice doesn’t sound nearly as innocent now. On the surface, it’s still the same bubbly little chirp I’d expect from a filly her age, but now that imminent death no longer has a monopoly on my mind, I can hear a thick, deeply distorted second layer to it, as if the beast behind her—or something even worse still lurking out of sight—is repeating every word she says in perfect sync. “She’s just like us,” the foal adds, and as she turns to face me I can’t help but jump back and gasp. Just like her voice, her face looks almost normal at first. A stubby unicorn horn pokes out from beneath pink and purple curls, and the dimples in her cheeks seem to glow when she smiles. But none of that is enough to distract from the part of her face that really is glowing: the twin orbs of otherworldly light that shine from her eye sockets and send a flickering yellow pallor splaying across my front.
The filly and I stare at each other, she with an angelic look of warm curiosity and I with something that’s steadily working its way up to horror, until without warning she hops back towards the beast and darts between his legs again, gesturing for it to follow as she slides back the sleeve of her dress to reveal a tiny bracer strapped to her ankle. “C’mon, Daddy!” she calls out, giggling to herself as she bounces away. “There’s stars in here!”
For the first time, the beast doesn’t immediately respond to the filly’s demands. I can see its legs tensing inside its suit, its mind straining to decide between staying with its ward and heeding its instinctual urge to not turn its back on me. I can’t see its eyes or any other part of its face through the porthole, so I can’t tell whether it’s leaning towards one decision or the other. I can’t even tell if it has a face under there at all. So I watch, and I wait, and I grit my teeth as my legs burn and my head begins to throb. If I run, could this thing catch me? If I pulled out one of those tubes, could I buy enough time to get out of sight? Could he hit me with that cannon from twenty feet away? From fifty feet? From the other end of the hall?
I can’t risk it. And yet I can’t just sit here either, wondering whether my lungs closing up will kill me before this machine pony does. Not even my workshop can save me now: every gear inside is too slippery to hold, every nail and screw too brittle to touch. I can’t decide. I can’t escape. I can’t…
Applejack’s voice is softer than usual, her tone calm and controlled in a way that makes it plainly obvious she’s forcing herself to stay that way. I try to answer her, but my lips are shaking too much to even form her name.
“You don’t have to talk, I can see you fine,” she intones. “Just keep quiet and don’t move.”
My brain catches her drift easily enough, but my tongue is still a step or two behind by the time she’s done. “M-m-maybe I could-”
I swallow hard and obey, just as the filly turns around again. “Come on, Mr. B!” she shouts. “They’re dancing for us!”
“Look at the ground, Ruby,” Applejack tells me.
Now it’s my mouth that beats my mind to the punch. “What?”
“He’s watchin’ you because you aren’t lookin’ away. They’re only protectors, Ruby, wild dogs trained to bite only when one of those little ones hears somepony bark. Long as you keep starin’ at him, he’ll keep thinkin’ you’re a threat. So just look at the ground, and don’t so much as scratch an itch till he’s decided you ain’t worth his time.”
I take a shallow breath in through my nose and, and as slowly as I can, tilt my head to the side and turn my eyes down towards the floor, sliding my hoof off my chest in the same motion. The beast still doesn’t move. Sweat begins to bead at my maneline, but I don’t dare wipe them away, so soon my forehead is dripping from the heat flowing through my body and collecting in my face.
It takes every ounce of self-control I have not to look up, and I guess that single action is what finally convinces the beast that I’m not going to attack. After one last parting groan, his shadow lifts from over me, and he retreats down the hall to join the filly he’s apparently supposed to be guarding. My eyes start to burn as soon as he’s gone, but I squeeze them shut tight and still don’t move. There’ll be plenty of time for emotional breakdowns later. In this moment right now, Applejack’s word is the only thing I need to hold on to.
“Stand up. Slow and steady,” she whispers. “Make sure Link’s all right.”
Link. Stars above, I’d completely forgotten he was even here. Wasn’t I mad at him about something? In the middle of rolling over onto my stomach, I throw a fleeting glance over to where I last remember seeing him, where the beast shoved him aside on his way towards me. He’s already on his hooves, a bit pale and shaky but otherwise unhurt. Our eyes meet long enough to confirm that both of us still generally in one piece, and then he looks back down the hall to keep an eye on the hall’s other two occupants while I occupy myself with remembering how to walk.
“You’re gonna have to pass by ‘em again to get to the elevators,” Applejack says once I’m up. “That big lug’ll preen for ya a bit once you get close, but so long as you don’t make any sudden moves and you keep movin’, he should let you by.”
He should let us by. I feel better already.
Without any more instruction to go on than that, all I can do is put one hoof in front of the other and keep my eyes on the prize as much as possible. Link falls in step behind me once I get going, pausing just long enough to grab his still-dripping crowbar and levitate it by his side where the beast won’t be able to see it. At least he’s being reasonable about that.
Oh, right, that’s what we were fighting about. The mare’s body was another thing I’d forgotten about over the past minute or two. I step around her as gingerly as I can, but keeping my eyes off that particular obstacle inevitably leads to my gaze drifting towards the much bigger one down the hall. The beast is now standing over the stallion with the hole in his head, his little partner crouched behind his torso with her hoof stuck inside his jacket pocket. Except that can’t be all she’s doing, because her hoof’s not moving like she’s digging around for something in there. Curiosity wins out over fear, and I give the pair a closer look just as the filly gives a little grunt and yanks her leg back away from the stallion.
A six-inch long needle comes with it.
A prickling chill washes over my stomach, and I stop dead in my tracks. I have only a moment to pretend I’m not seeing what I think I’m seeing before the filly tilts her hoof to the side, examines a red vial inside the bracer the needle is protruding from, and then bites her lip and stabs back down. The syringe reenters the stallion’s body with a wet shick, and the floor pitches like a sailboat at high tide.
“Ain’t nothin’ you can do for him now,” Applejack calls out from beneath the waves. “Eyes down, hooves forward.”
Eyes down, hooves forward. I say it again under my breath, and each repetition gives me a little more strength to keep moving towards the hallway. Eyes down, hooves forward.
We’re about ten feet away from the filly before her protector notices us again. His angry groans and glinting faceplate follow us all the way past them. Eyes down, hooves forward.
We reach the second stallion’s body, and Link switches his crowbar out for the other pony’s more powerful cannon. When he leans back up, his forehead is shining with sweat. Eyes down, hooves forward.
We round the corner and walk a few more steps, until finally the corridor opens up into the balcony Applejack promised us we’d find there. Link nods forcefully and wipes his face with a forehoof, but I can’t even manage a relieved sigh. Even though we’re out of sight, nothing about this place feels safe anymore.
“Congratulations,” Applejack says wryly as I give a quick glance down towards the plaza. “You just survived your first meetin’ with a Big Daddy.”
“Is that something…I should be proud of?” I gasp back.
“Considering that rivet gun’a his can put six inches of steel through ya at seventy-five yards, it’s more than most ponies can say,” Applejack answers with a dark sigh. “Elevators are just off to the right there.”
The wonder of my first encounter with the automated machines has worn off a bit by now, so once Link and I are slowly sinking even deeper into Hades, I’m left with nothing to do but ask the question that’s been bouncing around in my mind since we got here. “What happened to this place?”
We’ve gone down almost a full floor before Applejack answers, and when she does, it’s in a soft voice tinged not with the motherly authority I’ve come to expect, but with a deep, almost physical sense of regret. “You might as well’ve asked what didn’t happen,” she murmurs. “Maybe the war we fought with each other did us in, or maybe the one we were fightin’ with nature all those years before whittled us down first. Could’ve been big business or big government, or big ponies pushing the smaller ones a step too far…most of us just didn’t care so long as the apples were fresh and the hypos kept rollin’ off the line.
“Me, though, I think we just got too smart for our own good. We made our bodies strong and our minds fast, and we kept buildin’ ourselves up higher and higher till it was too late to realize we were livin’ beyond our means, that those wings we were flyin’ on were just gossamer and mornin’ dew. Time was, this place was the busiest hive a bee could ever hope to find. Ponies came here from all over Equestria chasin’ after their dreams…now they’re ghosts, dead as the city they thought would save ‘em.”
The elevator creaks to a halt as it reaches the end of its descent, and once the doors slide open Link and I are treated to our first ground-level view of the desecrated plaza. The bodies littering the floor don’t move, and neither do we. “I don’t know what kind’a fate or providence got y’all in that bathysphere, Ruby,” Applejack says, with a new tone to her voice that almost resembles humility, “but if it’s kin with the kind that got me here…I reckon if I help you, maybe you can help me. Hope’s a right powerful thing to come by, and if believin’ in it makes me a fool…well, I can think’a worse things to be in a time like this.”
Applejack is silent for a moment, one that’s just long enough for her to gain her old personality back. “G’wan and head across the plaza,” she says. “I’ll send a bit’a help down once you’re a few jumps outta the fryin’ pan.”
I nod to myself and let the radio fall silent again, but I still can’t bring myself to step out of the elevator. It’s not even the bodies that bother me anymore; much more than that, I can’t shake the feeling that something else is in the plaza, watching and waiting for us to come just a bit farther out in the open. Normally, the point where I started thinking that would also be the point where the rational part of my brain told me I was being ridiculous, but in light of being rational getting me absolutely jacksquat so far in this place, paranoia just seems like an appropriate response right now.
But once I finally step out of the elevator and stop beside the stiffened legs of a long-dead unicorn, I begin to wonder whether those nerves are really justified after all. The plaza practically defines the term “deserted”; minus the sounds of my breath rasping out of my lungs, the whole place is silent as a proverbial grave. Not to mention it’s packed with enough bodies to make it a literal one. I let a shudder work its way through my back and then keep going, telling myself under my breath that the only way to get over fear is to face it head-on.
We make it all the way up to the fountain before I realize that’s also a great way to get yourself killed.
The lights, of course, are the first things to go. When I first walked into it, the plaza was lit by the same rounded lamps I saw in the bathysphere bay, but the instant I put a hoof past the far edge of the central fountain’s basin, each one fizzles out one by one until the place is nearly pitch-black. The effect, as I’m sure it’s meant to be, is terrifying, almost as much as the sudden screeching of metal that rings out from a dozen places high overhead, and the low whispers and growls that slither out after them like snakes closing in on a pair of half-crippled mice.
Before I can even so much as scream my last and hope whatever’s coming for me is kind enough to end my life quickly, the plaza is flooded with bright white light again, though this time it’s not coming from the walls. It’s coming from up above us, where something has unfolded from the rivets in the walls to form three giant glowing screens arranged in a circle around the domed glass ceiling. Struck half-blind by the sudden flash, the screens quickly take up what little vision I have left, which means I’m still looking up at them when the light shimmers and abruptly morphs into an image of the same mare I saw in the theater, and up in the tower, and in every shattered strut and rivet in this sunforsaken place. I blink up at the face and the face blinks back, and then Onyx Ryder’s lips curl into a sneer, and her booming voice fills the plaza with words that feel powerful enough to break me in half.
“The vultures of Canterlot smell blood in the surf…and yet still they circle overhead, sending their chicks down to brave the unfathomable depths of equine dissimulation. Tell me, little birdies, what did you think you’d find down here? A worm from the Princess, a crumb of bread from the scientific nobility? Here’s the news: Harmony isn’t some piddling colony ready to be boxed up and shipped back home, and Onyx Ryder is not some modest mare of science begging to be snapped up and bid upon by the oligarchy of the elite. But of course, the barbarous mind of the vassal knows nothing of passion or initiative, and such a creature is less than despicable. You are merely…useless.”
Off to the right, something flits across a balcony before latching onto the wall and turning its head down towards me. As if she’s aware of my inattention, Ryder pauses in her speech for a moment, so I have plenty of time to watch in horror as more shadowy shapes pour out of doorways and air ducts and jagged holes in the walls, crawling and flying down towards the plaza like monstrous black flies. The growls are much closer now, and getting louder by the second. “We are all connected by the Great Chain of Progress,” Ryder goes on, “and if a link in the chain is inadequate…for the good of all, it must be removed.”
Link backs into me and pushes us into a slow, consistent spin, but no matter where we look, the picture is the same. Everything is living, everything is breathing, everything is oozing down closer and closer to the spot where we’ll make our first and final stand. “So I bid you adieu, little birdies,” Ryder finishes, already sounding bored by the formality. “Perhaps next time, your associates might know better than to wander so far from the ne-”
The picture overhead doesn’t change, but suddenly the voice coming out of it is lost amid the even louder interruption of a jovial-sounding stallion with a deep baritone voice and a country drawl thick as pea soup. “Ho’ up there, sweet cheeks, ain’t no sense in gettin’ bowed up on their account,” he declares. “Tain’t a crime to stroll out and see the sights, now, is it?”
For a breath of a second, Ryder’s face is blank with shock, but her expression rockets back to abject rage two heartbeats later. “Daybreak, this doesn’t concern you!” she shouts.
“Aw shucks, darlin’, don’t be such a square,” Daybreak teases back. “Can’t let you have all the fun in this Podunk town.”
“Just as I can’t let you keep endeavoring to destroy it,” Ryder seethes back. Even the shadows on the walls have stopped to listen by now. A sudden feeling of lightness fills out my chest: in the confusion of the moment, everypony else in the room has completely forgotten we exist.
“Well, I s’pose we’ll just have to agree to disagree on that particular philosophy,” Daybreak muses before raising his suddenly angry voice. “Soup’s on, everypony!” he hollers. “Time to get ‘em while the gettin’s good!”
“Daybreak!” Ryder roars, but it’s too late. Before his name’s even finished echoing off her lips, a whole new sea of bodies swarms out of every nook and cranny in sight, and this time it’s garnished with a dozen whirring, whistling hunks of flying metal, all of which start spraying the walls with impossibly rapid cannon fire the instant they get into open air. Ryder’s forces get their bearings on the situation just in time to catch sight of Daybreak’s leaping for their throats, and within seconds the entire room has dissolved into chaotic, incomprehensible carnage. Shrieks and smoke choke the air, bodies fight and fall and pepper the ground with frightening regularity, and all the while both Ryder and Daybreak are screaming themselves hoarse telling their respective fighters who to kill and how violently to do it, although how they can tell which pony belongs to who is a mystery to me. I can barely even hear myself think right now, even though all that’s going through my mind for some reason is my name repeated over and over again. Even though the voice that’s saying it doesn’t sound like my own.
Even though that voice isn’t even inside my head at all.
“Ruby!” Applejack screams for what must be the tenth time. Distracted as I am fumbling with the radio, I don’t see the body hurdling towards me until pure reactive instinct forces me down as I catch the tiniest glimpse of it in the corner of my eye. The scabby black pegasus misses me by less than a foot and lands in the fountain with a bone-jarring splash, air bubbles and blood seeping out of the freshly opened hole in his neck. “Applejack!” I yell back as I crouch below the lip of the basin, my teeth chattering as the filthy water inside lips over the edge and splashes over my back.
“Oh, thank the stars,” Applejack says in return. "I don’t know what’s got into either’a them, but we’ll worry about that later! Get to that door and don’t stop runnin’ till there’s dirt between your legs!”
She doesn’t have to tell me hardly even once. I barely even comprehend the end of Applejack’s order before I’m sprinting faster than I even thought possible, the thick metal door on the other side of the plaza the only thing visible in the tunnel my vision has become. When the door is fifty feet away, another body plummets to Earth, this one a lacerated earth pony whose neck snaps on contact with the floor. At thirty-five feet, a unicorn bleeding from his mouth stumbles into my path, and with a lopsided grimace raises a wicked-looking barbed harpoon over his head. I’m only twenty feet from the door before I realize I just barreled straight through him like he wasn’t even there.
From then on, everything is a blur. The battle rages around me, the uproar deafening enough to scramble my thoughts even further. Beside me, Link is matching every step I take, and in front of me, the wheel on the front of the door is spinning. I’m fifteen feet from the door when it begins to open, ten when I can see a pony standing in the space behind it, five when I realize I’m going too fast to keep from barging right into them. Steel crashes, cannons rumble, and as I dive over the threshold I hear Ryder screech, “Get them!” at the top of her lungs.
Then the door clangs shut, the noise disappears, and I smack face-first into a yellow-furred earth mare with bracers on each foreleg and a braid of red mane hair swinging behind her head. We go down hard, our hooves clanging against the metal platform beneath us, but the other pony barely hits the ground before she’s up on her hooves again, panting with exertion and frantically beckoning us forward.
“This way!” she calls out with an accent that sounds remarkably like Applejack’s. “We gotta get y’all outta here ‘fore they get that door open again!”
Link and I share a look, but I don’t even have time to identify the emotion we’re sharing before we’re hot on the other mare’s heels, each hoofbeat reverberating off the glass walls of the tunnel that’s carrying us straight over a chasm that looks a thousand feet deep. We’re about two-thirds of the way across when the grinding squeal of the door sliding open reaches my ears, and judging by the way the mare leading us grits her teeth and groans, I’m pretty sure she heard it too.
“Over here!” she calls back, just before hanging a sharp right into another glass hallway about half the length of the first one, with a small fork in the middle where a support beam has been speared right through the center. In front of the beam lies another one of the flying cannons that Daybreak sent into the plaza, only this one’s been bolted to the floor and looks like it’s meant to stay there. My steps falter a bit as I remember how easily those things tore through the ponies clinging to the walls behind us, but the red-maned mare doesn’t slow down one bit. At least, not until we’re right on top of the thing.
“Stop!” she yells, sliding down into a crouch next to the machine without even checking to see if we’ve listened. Almost too fast for me to even see what she’s doing, the mare ejects a flathead screwdriver from inside one of her bracers and pries a panel off the side, and spends a few precious seconds rearranging the parts inside before slamming the panel back on and smacking the device to life.
The three of us turn tail and run again just as the mob behind us rounds the corner and catches sight of us. In the same instant, though, the mare’s bootlegged contraption catches sight of them as well, and soon the whole tunnel is ringing with concentrated bursts of cannon fire and the wails of the unfortunate ponies who took the full brunt of the assault. “That ain’t gonna slow ‘em down for long,” the mare grunts as we approach another crossroads. “Follow me. We’re takin’ a shortcut.”
Asking what exactly she means by “shortcut” would take far more energy than I have at the moment, so I just consign myself to enduring whatever fresh horror awaits me at the end of this tunnel, and mimic every step the mare in front of me takes. We turn left at the junction, run about fifty yards, then enter a building, turn right, then left, then left again, and then suddenly the air around me tastes fresh when I suck it down my throat. My sluggish brain registers the scent of flowers long before it tunes in to the fact that my hooves are thumping against the ground instead of clanging, and it even takes a second or two after that before I recognize the dark, crumbly stuff shifting between my legs is soil.
Soil. Dirt. Dirt between my legs. The scent of flowers invades my nose again, and now brings with it a soft, fruity smell. I look up and see green leaves and healthy brown tree trunks, and the crack my mind makes as it snaps in two is far too loud to just be something I just imagined. Green leaves. Brown trunks. Apple trees.
I’m in an apple orchard. I’m in an apple orchard under the sea.
“Come on,” the mare commands, though her voice is definitely more level now than it ever was before. “Ain’t too far now.”
She’s not kidding. Just a couple rows of trees and a corrugated storehouse later, we come to one last door big enough for half a dozen ponies to walk through side by side, bristling with rows of automated cannons and punctuated by a cylindrical camera hanging overhead that scans back and forth with a green spotlight along every inch of ground within ten feet of the door.
“Grand Galloping Gala. Apple Bloom,” the mare enunciates slowly, waiting for a telltale buzz from the door before continuing with her normal inflection. “Grounds are clear from where I’m standin’, Applejack.”
The same box that confirmed the mare’s voice now blossoms with the other one I’ve come to know so well in the past half-hour. “You hurt, AB?”
“Fit as a fiddle, and heavy two floaters,” AB replies. “Now open up ‘fore I break the lock again.”
The speaker in the door blips and cuts off, and then with a deep groaning noise and an even louder scraping one, a crack of light appears at the base of the door as it gradually begins to inch up off the ground. I see spotless gray tile, a braided blonde tail, a foreleg encased entire in gleaming gold metal, and then the door finishes its ascent and I’m staring past a pert, squarish nose, a ragged yellow cowlick, and a well-worn brown cowpony hat into wrinkled, weathered, weary green eyes that look like they’ve seen the whole world and everything in it. Exactly the kind of eyes I’d expect to see on a leader. Exactly the kind of eyes I’d expect to see on the pony who saved my life.
“Hey, Applejack,” I say a bit sheepishly.
“Howdy, Ruby. Howdy, Link,” she replies, giving me a once-over even as her freckles perk up with a smile. “You look rougher than a corn cob, sugarcube.”
“Tight schedule,” I answer with a weak grin of my own. “Didn’t have time to clean up.”
The chuckle that quip gets out of Applejack is small, but it warms me up so much to see a face so friendly that I couldn’t have cared less if she hadn’t even heard it. “Well, that’s fixed easily enough,” she remarks. “And if I’m not mistaken, I do believe I owe y’all an explanation or two.”
Link and I both remember his outburst at the same time, and to his credit, he has the decency to blush. “Don’t worry about it, sugarcube,” she tells him with another chuckle. “’F that’d been me in your place, I woulda hollered a lot longer than that. Louder, too.”
“Not to cut the meet-and-greet short,” the other mare butts in before any of us can continue shooting the breeze, “but the two-foot thick steel door and fifty-millimeter security turrets actually are here for a reason, so if we could all go ahead and hop on the other side’a those real quick, I’d be very much obliged.”
Applejack laughs for real this time, and when she looks over and flashes me a very poorly concealed eye roll, every nail and every screw that’s been twisted into my chest over the last few hours finally comes free. It’s not even the presence of security that makes me feel at ease; the feeling spreading through me goes much deeper than that. I don’t just feel safe, I feel comfortable, in a way that I haven’t felt in years. Maybe I’m at the bottom of the ocean, and maybe I have no way of getting back off it, and maybe I’m stuck here with a Canterlot socialite with dried oats for brains, but at least I’ve got one mare who I know will look out for me, who I know I can count on. Who I know I can trust.
That’s what this is, I realize as I step forward and enter Applejack’s home. That’s why I’m so happy. That’s why I’m so at ease. This is what it feels like.
This is what trust feels like.
“Come on down to the parlor and take a load off,” Applejack says as the door slams closed behind us. “I reckon we got some things to discuss.”
• • •
• • •
• • •
“Come on, everypony, smile smile smile,
fill my heart up with sunshine, sunshine...”
- Pinkamena Diane Pie