“…half a gramme for a half-holiday, a gramme for a week-end, two grammes for a trip to the gorgeous East, three for a dark eternity on the moon..."
– Aldous Huxley, Brave New World
Part One - A Prologue of Strife
“She’s down! Now, Celestia!”
An armored black hoof smashed the royal guard in the face, sending the white pegasus across the room. He cracked the bricks where he struck, and slumped to the tattered carpet.
The black alicorn at the center of the room reared up from where the last three surviving royal guard pegasi and two unicorns struggled to hold her down, both physically and magically. The miasma of swirling starfield that had once been her mane lashed out at the unicorns and slashed at their hides. One screamed and buckled as the magic slashed his knees.
“Release me!” she bellowed. “Release me and I will kill you painlessly!”
Celestia struggled up from the wreckage of her throne where her sister had thrown her after her first attempt at pacification. She bled from lacerations across her entire body. Slivers of wood and shards of glass protruded from some of the cuts. One wing hung limp at her side.
“Luna,” she said, and choked back a sob. “I’m sorry, you leave me no choice.”
Luna, transfigured as she was, merely sneered at her sister. “Choice? You left me no choice when you divided the sky between us.” She struggled against the flowing purple telekinetic web holding her down as it began to flicker and fail. One of the unicorns slumped to the floor unconscious, her horn blackened from the strain. “You left me no choice when you told me that this was the way things had to be.”
“Enough!” Luna flailed her wings and stretched the kinetic web. “This is the sunset of the world that once was! Discord was right, things have stagnated, and I will change that. Forever!”
A final tear trickled down Celestia’s cheek. She closed her eyes, but when she looked up, her nerves were steel. “Good night, my dearest sister.” With her own magic she lifted the five stone spheres scattered beneath the shattered table. They spun around her in a circle, crackling with arcane fire. In a flash, they melded with her form. Celestia spread her wings as pure solar fire washed around her new suit of armor. The maroon and gold of the chest plate faded into white around the wing-guards, and into a silver tracing on the barding across her back. The emblem of the risen sun dominated the chest plate.
“You will always be my little sister, no matter what you’ve done,” Celestia said. She took one last step forward and braced herself as a polychromatic wrapping snaked its way around her horn. “And you will always be my friend.”
“Never!” Luna shouted, bucking the second-to-last guard off her. “I hate you, sister! You and this whole world!”
“So be it.” Celestia lowered her horn. Swirls of shredded carpet and broken glass swirled around her as the air began to shimmer.
Luna twisted her neck and speared her horn through the last guard’s flank, piercing the armor with ease. The guard bellowed, and Luna tossed him aside with a flick of her head. The last remaining unicorn whinnied, and a fifth glow burst from around his horn, sending shards of light spattering across the destroyed throne room. The net tightened and slammed Luna backward into the wall, holding her in place.
“You foal!” Luna twisted her head and glared at the pale cream unicorn. Blackness shredded the air around her horn, and a look of horror washed over the remaining unicorn’s face. “Taste your deepest fears, live in nightmares forever!”
Before she could finish her spell, a rainbow burst from Celestia’s horn and streaked across the room. It blasted Luna free of the telekinetic hold, but pinned her against the wall through sheer force. It tore and sundered the rear half of Luna’s midnight blue armor, revealing the mark of a crescent moon on her flank as she writhed to get free.
The rainbows wrapped around her like ten thousand tiny ribbons, cutting into her and binding her. Luna screamed, the sound lost in the rush of wind and flame. And then there was silence.
The unconscious black alicorn slid to the floor and lay in a smoldering heap. The smell of burnt hair drifted through the sudden stillness.
Celestia’s sides heaved, as she struggled to stay conscious herself and catch her breath. The power of the Elements had almost overwhelmed her. They had been difficult to wield even when Luna shared the burden with her against Discord, but alone… The armor fell from her. The pieces faded, crumbled to dust, and reformed as the stone spheres they once had been. Celestia magically lifted them back onto the pedestal where they belonged. After what she had just done, they could stay there forever for all she cared.
Celestia sat and stared at the elements for a few moments. Kindness. Loyalty. Honesty. Generosity. Laughter. How many of these had she just horribly misused? Against her own sister, no less?
“Princess?” The pale unicorn looked to Celestia. A scorch mark from one of Luna’s flaming arrow spells had obliterated half of the unicorn’s cutie mark, leaving only half of a sealed scroll and two blue sparkles remaining. “Are you all right?”
“I’m…” Celestia looked at her little sister, nearly her own size and malformed by some astral magic. “No, Lightheart, I’m not all right. I may never be again.”
Lightheart nudged the fallen Luna with his nose. “She’s still alive, Princess. You didn’t kill her.”
“Yes I have,” Celestia said, hanging her head. “I’ve put her to sleep. Forever. And as I touched her mind, I saw…” She choked. “I saw two creatures. One was my sister whom I love. The other… a wicked mare of darkness, full of pain and fear.” She looked away from Lightheart. “I have locked my sister in her own mind, with her nightmares. Forever.”
Lightheart sighed. “She touched my mind too, just now. I heard, and saw, and felt that thing, and your sister’s fear. You stopped her from doing the same to me. Maybe to every pony in Equestria.”
Celestia slumped to the ground. “But my own sister…” She looked at Lightheart with tears in her eyes again. “I made myself do it, for the kingdom, but I…”
Lightheart limped over to stand beside the princess. They both looked at Luna in silence.
“It’s far, far past when the sun should rise, Princess,” Lightheart said after a few minutes.
“How can I raise the sun when my sister will never see it again?” Celestia said. Her voice cracked with strain.
Lightheart helped the other unicorn to her feet. She looked dazed, probably from strain and blood loss. Her blue fur was already matted with blood over the mark of a sparkling book on her flank. She staggered toward the ruins of the door, stopping to help the surviving guards up. Only two had lived through the fight.
“Your kingdom needs the sun,” Lightheart said. “They’ve been without it for weeks now. Crops are dying. Ponies are freezing. If you don’t-”
“I know,” Celestia said. She pushed herself up from the destroyed carpet and looked out a window at the dark sky. “I… I don’t deserve to see it again, but I can’t let other ponies suffer over this.” She walked to the balcony off the throne room and pointed her horn at the sky. A final tear trickled down her face as the sun rose in all its brilliance, but disappeared behind the moon.
The brilliant corona of fire behind the moon lit the world in an eerie grey. It was a reminder. What she had done to Luna would throw shadows over the rest of her life, no matter what she did.
Lightheart looked at the sight of sun and moon in the sky at the same time and gaped in awe. The normally pristine white surface of the moon was black by comparison to the solar fire behind it. He tapped a hoof on the balcony’s stone floor. “Princess, what is this?”
“I don’t know what to call it,” Celestia said. “It’s beautiful and terrible.”
Lightheart shook his head in amazement. “The only records we have of the sun and moon being in the sky at the same time were during the reign of Discord. Nopony had a name for it then either.”
“This isn’t enough light,” Celestia said, a determined look on her face. “I must lower the moon.”
And so she did, sweating with struggle. The touch of the moon was not like the brilliance of the sun, the warm and joyful kiss of living fire. The sun practically leapt into the sky by itself. The sun Celestia had moved for dozens of years, but never had she touched the moon. It was cold. Empty. Silent. It chilled her to touch it, even with her magic. But she lowered it, and sunlight washed down on Equestria once more.
Celestia leaned her head on the balcony and looked down at the ruins of the city. It could barely be called the City of Trees anymore, as nearly half the forest had been leveled in Luna’s fury. Domes and spires lay in fragments, few if any buildings still had their whole roofs, and here and there black fires still burned.
“Your majesty,” Lightheart said. His voice was always soft, but this time he spoke in what was barely louder than a whisper.
“What?” Celestia said. She turned to look back at the cream unicorn. “Father and mother were Majesty, I… I am not.” She caught her breath and frowned. “Luna is not dead. Neither she nor I will be Majesty. Ever.”
Lightheart hung his head. “I’m afraid that’s not optional, your Majesty,” he said. “The citizens will need you now more than ever, and you must make a show of strength. That you were not beaten by your sister, that you will be able to handle things in Equestria without her.”
“No.” The coldness in Celestia’s voice surprised even her. “I will not destroy my sister and then take over the kingdom as if nothing had gone wrong.”
“As you wish, Princess,” Lightheart said. “But if you do not take action soon, your ponies will doubt you, and if that happens, there is no way to save Luna.”
“I-“ Celestia began. “Wait, save Luna? How?”
Lightheart limped to the center of the scorched floor where Celestia had used the Elements of Harmony. The blackened stone steamed as it cooled. “Part of my research on Souls and the Elements of Harmony has led me to believe that there is a way to heal wounds of hate and bitterness this deep. Even ones so deep that they would divide a pony from herself.” He held up a hoof as Celestia started to speak. “I can promise nothing, but if you will allow, I would…” He looked down at the sleeping Luna. The dark alicorn whimpered in her sleep. Lightheart sighed. “I would like to try.”
“I… Of course!” Celestia said, startled. “Whatever you believe you need, ask.”
Lightheart looked Celestia right in the face. His expression mixed daring courage and excited anticipation as he spoke.
“I need the moon.”
Part Two - A Brave New Moon
“I have no words to express this,” Lightheart whispered.
Celestia smiled, and for the first time in several months, she felt it was a genuine smile. “Do you like it, Doctor Lightheart?”
Celestia and Lightheart stood, quite literally, on the surface of the moon. Hundreds of miles of stark white-grey beauty, pockmarked here and there by craters and fissures, spread before the two. A layer of fine powdery dust the consistency of flaked ash swirled about their hooves as they walked beneath a translucent golden shield of magic that held the air they breathed. The sky was nothing but a black blanket, scattered with pinpricks of light. Far off in one direction was the sun, burning fiercely with no sky or clouds to get in its way. In the other was a giant ball of blue, white, and green. The planet, far below them, was serene and beautiful, so far away and yet… still home.
Lightheart nodded solemnly. “Very much, your Majesty. More than I have ever liked anything. It is more wonderful than I had pictured it.”
“But you did picture it, and all this,” Celestia said, gesturing with her healed wing back toward the black dome enclosures behind them. She waited a moment while Lightheart took in the sight. “Why did you want the moon, Lightheart?” she asked. “Did you think Luna would feel less alienated this close to her responsibility?”
Lightheart looked up at the everpresent night sky, then up at Celestia. “Think about it, your Majesty. Where else would be far enough away from other ponies that no harm would come to them? Where else could we have the privacy, away from the prying eyes of Equestria’s enemies, or worse, its own citizens? What pony would want to see the dear Princess Luna laid low in such a way?” He sighed. “It’s best that no one ever knows that you couldn’t bring yourself to truly harm her even when the fate of Equestria hung in the balance.”
“Or that I was unable to even restore her to her natural body,” Celestia said. She hung her head. “Go on.”
“True and doubly true,” Lightheart said. “It is imperative that you not lose the faith of your ponies. The sheer amount of magic we may have need of for this project is staggering, and if we do, your ponies need to be willing to give their all.”
Celestia tilted her head. “How do you mean?”
“I mean that repairing a damaged soul requires the cooperation of other, healthy souls,” Lightheart said. “Ones full of healing and harmony. And to heal great souls such as you and your sister have, especially when one is so badly damaged and corrupted that it transfigures the body that contains it…” He trailed off.
“Then it could require the cooperation of hundreds, thousands, millions of ponies?” Celestia said. “I… I don’t know if I can make them-”
“You don’t need to make anypony do anything,” Lightheart said. “For now, ensure there is peace, and the rest may well follow.”
“And what will they do?” Celestia looked up at the brilliant ball of blue. “How can my subjects help?”
“I...” Lightheart sighed. “I am not at this time certain of the procedure,” he said. “But we have some of the finest minds and sharpest skills in Equestria here, and expertise from other nations as well, and I promise you, we will find a solution.” He looked back to the black domes glinting in the starlight. “Speaking of which, would your majesty care to meet the other members of the team who will be helping Princess Luna?”
“Of course,” Celestia said. “I would know in whose hooves my sister’s life rests.”
“Then allow me to introduce them to you,” Lightheart said. He looked back at the green world far, far away. “You know, I believe that’s Equestria right there, just below all the white, between those two stretches of blue,” he said, holding up a hoof and pointing at the planet. “Funny how everything and everypony I ever knew can be blotted out with a single hoof from here.”
Celestia nodded. “Perhaps this perspective will teach you more than just how to cure my sister,” she said.
Lightheart snorted. “I am very well educated, your Majesty. Top of my class in the school for Talented Unicorns, as you well know.”
“Not your knowledge here,” Celestia said, tapping her head. Instead, she tapped her chest. “Your knowledge here. You know much about magic, and some about souls, but without someone to heal her broken heart, Luna will never recover. Without a perspective on how much fear and chaos Luna caused, I can never heal our nation. Perspective is every bit as important as raw knowledge.”
“Hrm.” Lightheart looked back at the Princess with a quizzical look. “If you say so, your Majesty,” he said. “Perspective is, after all, what I had my team assembled for. Multiple redundant avenues of double-checking and analysis.”
Celestia shook her head. “I suppose you will figure it out, given time. Now, let us meet that crew of yours.”
* * *
“Holy buckets of oats!”
Just as Celestia and Lightheart entered the room, the fire suppression system came online. Ports on the ceiling dumped several dozen cubic feet of pink foam onto a startled red earth pony at the controls beneath.
“Red Button!” Lightheart stomped on the riveted steel floor. “For the love of sweet apples, what are you doing?”
The pile of foam shifted and moved. Red Button crawled sheepishly out of the goo, bits of pink fluff clinging to her mane and tail. “Uh, testing the fire suppression system?” she said. “Looks like it works. Gee, I should really be going now, and… oh, your Majesty!” She bowed, got a nose full of foam, and sneezed. “I didn’t know you were paying us a visit so soon.”
“I told you not to fool about with the equipment until it was needed,” Lightheart said, scowling. “What were you doing with the suppression system?”
“Testing. It,” Red Button said, sounding annoyed. “I just said that, didn’t I?” She shook the foam off herself, getting flecks on Lightheart. Oddly, none seemed to stick to Celestia. “Look, I helped invent and build a lot of these things, and if something catches fire in here, I want to make sure it gets put out without venting all our air out onto the moon, all right?”
Lightheart clomped a hoof to his face and sighed. “Your Majesty, allow me to introduce our mechanic and chief engineer, Red Button," Lightheart said. "She helped design and build this facility. She’s extraordinarily bright, and very good at her job, but she can’t seem to refrain from fooling around with things that are already working properly."
Red Button was a young mare, and looked far too young to be entrusted with such a task. If she’d been a unicorn, Celestia thought, she would barely be old enough to have graduated from the School for Gifted Unicorns. Her coat was a dusky red, her mane crimson with a lone streak of rosy pink in it. Her cutie mark was, unsurprisingly, a cherry-red pushbutton. The button itself was odd though: it was marked with a skull and crossed bones. She wore a saddlebag of tools around her shoulders, with screwdrivers and wrenches poking up from its pockets and straps.
"Pleased to meetcha, Princess," Red Button said with another bow. "We got containment up and operational a week ahead of schedule, wanna see it?"
"Of course," Celestia said. "It behooves me to see where my little sister will be spending so much... what's so funny?"
Red Button had stifled a snicker. "You said 'behooves," she said.
"Oh, something I forgot to warn you about," Lightheart said, "Red Button has an unhealthy obsession with puns."
Celestia smiled, reminiscing. "Luna has been known to make one from time to time as well," she said. “It is difficult not to, with names like ours."
"I'd imagine," Red Button said. She scraped the fire suppressant foam from her hooves. "Anyway, come on and see Containment! It encapsulates everything I love about beautiful pieces of machinery!"
The three trotted a quarter of a mile down a windowed steel corridor with a view of the moonscape around them. The reflective dust of the lunar surface caught the light from the sun and refracted it into the tunnel, providing enough light that the light from the blue glowing gems in the ceiling was unnecessary.
In a few minutes, they arrived at a black dome the size of a lavish mansion. Lightheart put his horn in an indentation in the door. The door glowed blue and slid open. Inside, everything gleamed with the glint of polished metal and bright gems. Desks with graphs and blueprints lined the first and outermost of three concentric circles inside the dome. In the second, rolls of graphing paper and fresh wrapped bundles of wiring lay ready to plug in to machines and monitors that also sat in the second circle. In the first, thick panes of faintly luminescent glass protected transparent rooms full of medical equipment and tanks of gases. One of the rooms even contained what appeared to be a full chemistry lab combined with the contents of a zebra shaman’s hut.
In the center was an inner dome with no apparent entry or exit, a dome of silvery glass. It was visible from any and all stations in the dome, and contained a low bed, a table, and two chairs, all of which were welded to the floor, immobile.
Celestia winced, but she realized the gravity of the situation better than any other. "Doctor Lightheart," she said, "I take it this is the place my sister will be... kept?"
Red button answered in his stead. "Yep! That inner dome and its floor have been treated with magic-resistant silver from Black Peak in the griffon lands. I bet even you couldn't even punch a hole in them or teleport through. The inner rooms are research stations, and Doctor Nadiri's medical station is over there." She gestured with a hoof at the jumble of pony science and zebra alchemy.
Celestia flared her wings in apprehension. "Wait, you have zebras on your team?" she said to Lightheart.
“A zebra, yes.” The cream unicorn nodded. "You gave me free reign to choose the best minds for my team, and I did.” He ignored Red Button’s snicker at his unintentional pun. “Doctor Nadiri has three degrees in medicine, chemistry, and mytho-zoology, and an Ancestor's Glyph in arcane herbalism. She knows more about pony anatomy and chemical affects on it than even the greatest pony scholars."
"And she's pretty nice," Red Button added. "Once you get past her accent. What's the matter, Princess, you don't like zebras?"
"No, no, I love the zebra folk as much as my little ponies," Celestia said, "but they have never been mine to govern. What if the zebra clans hear of all this?"
“They will not.” A deep alto voice boomed from behind the three. Even Celestia jumped. Behind them stood a very tall zebra, her coat so dark that she looked as if she were black with white stripes rather than the other way around. Her head reached up almost to Celestia’s chin, if she counted the dreadlocks of the zebra’s mane, and she was heavily muscled enough to put all but the largest farm breeds to shame.
Doctor Nadiri spoke again. “They will not learn of what I see. The only one who learns, is me.”
Celestia gave Nadiri a quizzical look. “I’ve met but few zebra in my time ruling Equestria. Tell me, do all of you speak in rhyme?”
“Only when convenient to,” Nadiri said. “And if it’s not, we never do.”
“I like her,” Red Button said. “She’s pretty much never boring, and one time, she showed me that you can actually smoke Poison Joke. Hilarious, right?”
“Red…” Lightheart said. His tone said ‘shut up if you want to keep your job.’
Red lowered her head. “Right. Not talking about that. Anyway, take a look at the actual containment unit.” She wandered through the circles of desks and machines. “The dome is lowered from up there on a reinforced corkscrew pylon capable of pressing down with pressures around eight thousand pounds per square inch. The whole assembly is powered by dual rigged four-thousand ponypower generators designed by yours truly, and can be raised or lowered in about one point four seconds.”
“Did you get any of that?” Lightheart asked Celestia wryly.
“That is very impressive, my little pony,” Celestia said. “I think Luna will feel very safe in there.”
“It is not for your Luna to be safe from us,” Nadiri said. “It is she who is causing all the fuss.”
Celestia winced and looked back at the bank of machinery behind her. “This is true… I am sorry for the inconvenience this is to all of you.”
“It’s not an inconvenience,” Red Button said with a grin. “It’s nice to have a budget once in a while!”
“The preparations are nearly complete,” Lightheart said. “You just need to go and fetch Luna, your majesty. I’ll have Jupiter make the final checks.”
Lightheart pointed across the room to where a griffin sat on his haunches, poring over a diagnostic printout. “Jupiter Tailwind, history professor and the quickest creature with a quill I have ever come across,” he said. “My research assistant and scribe. His keen eyes are always catching my little mistakes.”
“Is that all, then?” Celestia asked, folding her wings. “Your whole team?”
“For the direct research, yes,” Lightheart said. “The only ones you haven’t met are our pilot Catapult, our medic Doctor Starcross, and the members of our security team. They’re all waiting for you back in Equestria, so they can shuttle you and Luna back here while you keep her under sedation.”
Celestia sighed and turned toward the door. “I suppose we had best get going, then. I probably won’t see any of you for a long time,” she said. “So good luck. And please, do your absolute best.”
And off she went, out of the complex and to the launch pad. There, the blue traces of a runic circle powered up to amplify Celestia’s teleportation spell enough to get her back to the planet. In a brilliant blue and purple flash, she was back on the balcony of palace in her new capital city of Canterlot.
The view from the side of the mountain was spectacular, she observed. It had been so long since she had simply looked out across her kingdom that she hadn’t even noticed. From here she could see the Silver River, Black Peak off in the distance, and even the charred forest where her former palace had been. The trees were starting to regrow there now, as Celestia had found herself unable to rebuild the palace in the same place, nor any part of the city that had once surrounded it.
Perhaps when Luna was cured, she would give her a tour of the new palace. Celestia gave one last look back at the moon, and gasped. She hadn't realized it while on the lunar surface, but she smiled now. Lightheart and his crew had designed the complex so that from the distance that separated the planet from the moon, it looked almost like a portrait of Luna, its domes black against the white of the lunar surface.
Now she knew how to explain things to the ponies on the world below. It was time to create a legend. A legend in which her ponies would believe.
Part Three - A Test of Will, a Test of Fortitude
"All right," Doctor Lightheart said. "Seal this thing up and let's begin taking samples."
Red Button nodded, and pulled the lever that controlled the corkscrewed piston which sealed the prone Luna off from the rest of the room. The generators whined, and the silvered glass rotated down over the deformed and monstrous Luna, the Doctors Lightheart and Nadiri, and two pegasi from the newly formed Lunar Security unit in their black steel armor.
Security One, Cloudskipper, was a white and blue buck from Cloudsdayle, and part of the royal air guard. Security Two was a standoffish flame-colored mare named Skyline. Red didn’t know much about her, other than that she was terse with everypony she spoke to. And she spoke as infrequently as possible.
Bags and trays of medical equipment lay on the ground around the restrained princess. Red shuddered as the airtight seals around the dome locked down with a hiss. She'd only seen Princess Luna once, during a parade, and this... thing beneath the dome was not her.
This thing had Luna's cutie mark, but her beautiful starry azure mane was gone, replaced by a swirling miasma of what looked like a miniature starfield. Blue armor covered most of her body, especially her legs and chest, missing only on her hindquarters, where it looked like it had been blasted off. And she was tall, taller and more slender than she had been before. She looked almost like her sister now, tall and graceful, but there was something...off about her, even when she was asleep.
"It breaks my heart to see her like this," Jupiter said from behind Red Button.
Red jumped. "O-oh, hello Jupiter," she said. "I-I didn't see you there."
"Not surprising, since most ponies haven't eyes in the backs of their skulls," Jupiter said with a wry laugh. The griffon was old, maybe a century old. Griffons only lived to be about a hundred and twenty, if they weren’t involved in some manner of fatal violence first. Jupiter’s fur grayed where it met his feathers and around a brand of a quill and scroll on his haunches. Even his feathers were graying at the tips. His gait had the hesitation that betrayed stiff joints, and his wings were never folded all the way, probably for the same reason. Despite his age, his golden eyes were still sharp and inquisitive, and the smile at the corners of his beak was kind.
He took a few steps forward to stand next to Red, his perilous talons clicking on the steel walkway and scratching the bright polished finish. He looked at the preparations in the dome. "I remember meeting Luna when I was with the White Wing Diplomatic Corps," Jupiter said. "We were so young then, she and I. She showed me black roses, her favorite flowers in the royal garden. I tried to show her I could perform an aerial loop-the-loop. She laughed when I landed in the fountain instead." The griffin sighed. "It was hard to believe that she and her sister had just imprisoned Discord. She carried on with life as if the world hadn't just endured chaos beyond the tolerance of mortal minds."
"And now look at her," Red Button said. "Do you think she finally snapped?"
Jupiter shrugged and flapped his wings. "She has always been the stronger of the two, emotionally. Strength of will can come in surprisingly small packages. But perhaps it was peace she couldn't endure."
Red sunk down against the console. "Or maybe the loneliness," she said in a small voice. "She ruled the night, not the day, and nopony’s awake during the night if they can help it."
"Perhaps," Jupiter said. "And perhaps you might postulate that to Doctor Lightheart. He is a psychologist, after all. I do hope he is able to find a cure for her. I’d do anything to hear that laugh again.”
Red thought the griffin’s voice sounded a little choked up, but Jupiter merely shook himself and ruffled his feathers. “Now then, to work.” He stalked down to the central dome and tapped on it with a talon. "Doctors? Are you ready to begin?"
Jupiter produced a tablet of paper and an inkpot from beneath his wings, plucked a quill from his chest, and settled back on his haunches at one of the writing stations. "Transcribing now," he said. "Begin when ready."
Lightheart and Nadiri began work immediately. Nadiri produced needles and an assortment of jars, and began drawing blood from the motionless Luna.
Red Button shuddered. She hated needles. Well, needles that weren't part of gauges or indicators for all systems operating at full efficiency. She watched through half-closed eyes, as if filtering the sight through her eyelids might make it less painful. Luna herself was so deeply asleep that she didn’t even flinch.
Lightheart, on the other hoof, was doing something much more interesting. He hooked up colored wires to a brass circlet, a circlet that looked almost like a crown set with emeralds and diamonds. The wires led to coppery box the size of a kitchen cabinet, with one of the spools of graphing paper in it. Periodically, a puff of steam would rise up from a tube attached to a gearbox on the back of the machine.
“Red Button!” Lightheart shouted. “Your machinery is malfunctioning!”
“Wh-wha?” Red Button skittered about, almost losing her balance on the polished steel. “But I tested all the recorders myself yesterday!”
Lightheart pointed to the machine hooked up to Luna. The graphing arm stuck itself firmly to the top end of the graphing paper, making a straight red line at the top of the graph. “How am I supposed to get accurate readings when the arm is stuck?” He thumped the machine with a hoof.
“Hey!” Red Button galloped down to the central dome. “Stop hitting the machine! It didn’t do anything wrong, you’re just doing all kinds of fancy science things and it needs to adjust.”
Lightheart looked at Red quizzically. “You mean to tell me that the machine is confused? A machine used precisely for the purpose of measuring mental activity is confused by mental activity?”
Red could feel her cheeks heating up, and her mane itched. She wanted to clobber the smug superior smile off of Lightheart’s face. He’d been treating her like a child since she joined the staff, her natural talent notwithstanding. If he was going to be like this during every test, she would just pack up and go home before things got too involved.
“Listen here,” Red said, banging on the glass and startling Lightheart. “Maybe, just maybe, that little machine there is trying to measure something too powerful for it on its current settings. Can you turn it up?”
Lightheart snorted. “Nopony has ever had mental activity of more than one thousand ideas per second,” he said. “But if it will make you and your machines feel better, I will recalibrate it for larger numbers.”
“You do that,” Red said, sitting back on her haunches and crossing her hooves.
Lightheart turned the machine off and made several adjustments to the gearbox in the back. When he turned it back on, it whirred, released a puff of steam, and the needle dropped down to two thirds of the way across the page and began scribbling madly.
“See!” Red crowed. “You just need to know what you’re looking for!”
“This is impossible,” Lightheart said, his jaw hanging open. “Twelve thousand to fourteen thousand ideas per second? Magic of that caliber is-”
“Impossible?” Nadiri smirked. “Have you ever measured the magic of your princess before?”
Lightheart slowly shook his head. “Celestia had herself measured once, but never Luna, not to my knowledge. This reading is incredible. It’s more than twice the energy from Celestia’s reading. And she’s still sleeping! I can’t imagine how much more it would be if she was awake.”
“So the machine’s fine?” Red said with a smirk.
“Yes, Red Button, you were right and I was wrong,” Lightheart said. “Now if you’re done being insufferable, I have more tests to run.”
“Insufferable?” Red said. “You’re the one banging on perfectly functional machinery and treating your staff like they’re blank-flanks.”
“Now, see here young lady,” Lightheart said huffily, but he was interrupted by Jupiter.
The griffin put a claw on Red’s shoulder. “Do leave the doctor alone until he’s finished with this,” he said. “If he gets preliminary results wrong, all subsequent tests will be worthless.”
Red looked at Lightheart. She so very much wanted to tell him off, but that probably wasn’t a good idea. Instead she glanced back at Jupiter and nodded. “Right. I’m going to go… uh, test the fire suppression system or something again.”
“Right then,” Lightheart said, turning back to his work. “Jupiter, initial results on Luna’s magic capacity in a rest state fluctuate between twelve thousand and fourteen thousand ideas per second, with an average duration of seven point two seconds between peaks and troughs…”
Jupiter’s quill scratched away, and Red slunk out of the room. Time to let the big boys play, she guessed.
* * *
By the end of the week, the first batch of serum was ready.
Nadiri had concocted a mixture of special herbs for calming nerves and soothing body aches, then distilled it down to its base chemical components and mixed it for injection. Lightheart enchanted the finished serum with antimagic wards and a calming charm.
They tested it for two days on cultures of Luna’s blood, with encouraging results. Cultures treated with the serum showed seventy percent more matches with Luna’s medical information that untreated cultures. But seventy percent was not enough, not when one-third crazy mutant monstrosity was likely powerful enough to level Canterlot. Again. The new Canterlot was embedded in the side of a mountain rather than in a forest, and was built with special precautions so that nothing shy of an attack by an entire wing of dragons could damage the support columns.
It was time to test the serum on the real princess. Lightheart and Nadiri had argued for hours as to whether the serum should be stronger or weaker in the initial live test. Eventually, they grudgingly agreed to leave it at the strength at which they had tested it on cultures but increase the size of the dose by fifty percent to account for the mutated body’s size and immunities.
Red sealed the chamber again. She and Jupiter stood outside the dome, nearly glued to the glass with anticipation. This time Lightheart and Nadiri wore the same body armor as their guards, and Luna was restrained to her bed. Out came the needle, in the needle went. Red winced. Jupiter hissed softly.
“Serum zero zero one alpha showing limited effect,” Lightheart said. “Physical form unchanged, but patient is still unconscious. Mental health unknown.” He looked down at the monstrous alicorn. “We’ll need to wake her to ascertain neurochemical effects.”
Jupiter wrote his words down, then looked up. “I do urge caution, Lightheart,” he said. “Luna was strong before her transformation. I cannot imagine her strength has diminished because of it.”
“I will use due caution,” Lightheart said. “Do give me some credit, Jupiter. I am a doctor, after all.”
Jupiter stifled a snicker and looked at Red. “I’ll lay odds of eight to five that when Luna wakes up, she’ll be more than a little unhappy with the good doctor.”
Lightheart waited another minute, and when nothing happened he lowered his head over Luna, his horn glowing. “Celestia showed me how to undo her spell, so I will wake Princess Luna now. Guards, be ready.”
He touched his horn to Luna’s.
Luna woke up.
"Wh-what is this?" Luna said. Her voice was confused, but beneath the confusion was a cold power. "Who are all of you? What am I doing here?" And then as she struggled to free herself from the restraints, she grew angry. "What is the meaning of this! Who has dared to lay bonds on me?"
"Princess Luna," Lightheart said. "You are in a special treatment facility on the moon."
Luna laughed, and her mane of starry cloud lashed around her. "What, the moon? Do you think me a foal? Where has my sister really imprisoned me?"
"I'm sure you have plenty of experience telling when ponies are lying to you, princess," Lightheart said. "You are on the moon, scheduled for psychiatric treatment and therapy."
"Lies!" Luna hissed. But she stared at Lightheart for a moment, then sighed. "Hmph. So the moon. Why the moon? Was it not injury enough to make me raise this cursed thing every night? Did my sister have to add the insult of banishing me to my own ball and chain?"
Nadiri shrugged. "You are misunderstanding, I think," she said. "The purpose of this place is not a prison, it is for becoming well instead of sick in the heart and mind."
Luna's eyes narrowed, glowing faintly through the silvery blue helmet. "Oh look, a zebra that doesn't rhyme. Tell me, zebra, do you really think these restraints can hold me?" She smiled a distinctly unpleasant smile. "Do you really think two pegasi will be enough to keep me from killing every last one of you?" She laughed. "And do you think glass, of all things, will keep me in your pathetic prison?"
In a flash, Luna disappeared from the bed, the restraints falling loose about where she had just been. But she didn't get far. She reappeared, still inside the dome, with a perplexed look on her face.
"What is this?" she said again. "And now you dare even tamper with my magic?"
"Red Button," Lightheart said calmly, "engage lockdown protocols, now, and prepare to vent MSA1 into the interior chamber."
Red punched buttons on the console, one that sealed the outer dome off from the rest of the complex, and another that queued up an aerosol of carbon dioxide, water, and finely powdered resistant silver of the same kind the glass of the dome was treated with. She knew that if anypony, unicorn or alicorn, were bathed in that cocktail, they would be unable to use magic until they cleaned the majority of it out of their coat. Lightheart would be just as vulnerable to it as Princess Luna, but...
“Well tamper with this!” Luna’s eyes flared a glowing white, and bolts of lightning cascaded from her horn. Two struck Security One, crackling and sparking across his metal armor. The force of the resulting electromagnetism threw Cloudskipper across the dome. He crashed into the end of Luna’s cot and crumpled motionless to the floor.
Skyline dove under the bolts and bucked Luna in the face. Luna turned her head just in time to catch the blow on the side of her helmet rather than her jaw. More bolts erupted from her horn, this time electrifying Skyline and also Doctor Lightheart. Lightheart caught the bolt on his own horn, and though he grunted in pain, he managed to force the lightning away to ground out against the floor. “Now, Red!” he shouted.
Red slammed her hoof down on the second button. The interior of the dome filled instantly with a fine mist. The fog inside the dome glittered for a moment before it settled.
Luna laughed. “Oh, a cloud. Now I am powerless,” she said. “How could you have known my one weakness?” Her grin turned ugly. “I tire of this. Die, unicorn!”
Her eyes glowed once more. Red winced, but nothing happened. Luna looked just as surprised as Red was. “Another trick?” Everything inside the dome glittered with faint sparkles of silver. Luna scowled. “Well, I don’t need magic to kill you,” Luna said. “And since you cannot use yours-”
But Nadiri and Skyline didn’t use magic. Nadiri bucked Luna in the ribs, catapulting the alicorn away and slamming her into the side of the dome like a launched hoofball. Skyline grabbed one of the metal instrument trays in her teeth and flung it at Luna’s head. The tray skipped harmlessly off her helmet, but the impact slammed the princess’s head into the floor. That gave Nadiri the opportunity to follow up on her first strike. The zebra leapt across the room and wrapped Luna in a headlock.
The alicorn bucked and struggled, but Skyline grabbed Luna’s hindquarters and held on with all her might.
“Doctor!” Nadiri said, rearing back to avoid a bite from the raging alicorn. “Injection beta!”
Lightheart lost no time in grabbing the fallen syringe. He jammed it into Luna’s flank and pushed the plunger home.
Luna screamed and thrashed.
Then the second serum took effect. Before Red’s eyes, the Princess diminished in size, her glowing starfield of a mane coalesced back into lustrous midnight blue hair, and she ceased struggling. The starred armor melded back into her hooves, chest, and head, disappearing as if they’d never been there in the first place. In less than a minute, she had transformed from a nightmare to a vision of beauty.
Nadiri, Lightheart and Security Two all collapsed.
“Everyone okay?” Red said, sounding panicked even to herself.
Lightheart raised his head and smiled weakly. “Initial test results on Serum zero zero one beta show distinct promise.”
“Recorded,” Jupiter said, scratching away at his notes. “You can vent the silver now, Red. And I’ll inform medical that everyone in that dome must receive a breathing treatment to remove the silver from their lungs.”
Red nodded and toggled the ventilation fans. As the mist cleared, she found her eyes drawn back to the dome.
There lay Luna, the real princess Luna, smaller than Celestia, perhaps even a few hairs shorter than Nadiri. She looked frail and sad, soaked and bedraggled as she was, almost like she’d been left out in the rain like an unwanted puppy. Red wanted more than anything else to give the princess a hug, as ridiculous and inappropriate as it seemed.
And then Luna opened her eyes and looked right at Red Button.
Part four - Not the Monster you Thought I Was
Luna burst into tears and covered her face with her hooves.
“Princess?” Doctor Nadiri said, leaning over the prone alicorn. “Are you all right?”
“No… no no no!” Luna said, skittering on the floor as she shied away from the zebra and unicorn. “Don’t make me sleep again, not again!”
“Princess, please,” Lightheart said. “We’re not going to harm you. This is for your own good.”
Red groaned. Why did doctors always say that when they were about to do something awful?
“No!” Luna shouted again. She backed up as close as she could press herself against the far wall of the dome, away from the doctors and security. “She’s still there, still in here, still watching, still laughing,” she said, tapping her head with a hoof. “Make her stop, make her go away!”
Lightheart took a step forward. Luna tensed. Lightheart stepped back slowly. “Please, Princess,” Lightheart said, “we only want to help you. Who are you talking about? Who is watching you?”
“The moon,” Luna said with a shiver. “My nightmare. My nightmares of the dark side of the moon. She wants so much to hurt you, she tried-” Luna’s eyes widened. “No, I tried to-”
Nadiri shook her head. “No, princess, it was not you. It was your body it acted through.”
“But I still feel it, I still hate you, all of you,” Luna said, her eyes glowed weakly, but either from exhaustion or the resistant silver, she couldn’t conjure so much as a fizzle. “I can’t tell where she stops and I begin…” With that she broke down into tears again. “So much hate…”
“Red Button,” Lightheart said, turning to face the dusky earth pony, “call the medical team down here to look after Cloudskipper, and get Skyline some backup. Security three through eight should be sufficient for when you unseal the isolation dome.”
Nadiri looked perplexed. “She tried to kill us all, you lout, and now you want to let her out?”
Lightheart looked offended. “My dear associate, I have you here for your medical and herbal expertise, not to question my judgment,” he said. “Even outside of isolation, the containment dome is still a controlled environment and does not jeopardize the validity of test results.”
“Your test results don’t worry me,” Nadiri said. “Safety is the concern, you see.”
“Um, I hate to interrupt,” Red said, “but I have to open the dome so Medical can get Cloudskipper out of there, if nothing else.” She looked at the pegasi with concern.
Skyline nudged the unmoving Cloudskipper with her nose, then looked back up at Red Button. “He’s alive, just unconscious,” she said. “He’s got arrhythmia. Get help.”
“Help’s on its way,” Red said worriedly.
Within a minute, Security Three through Eight arrived, along with the three ponies from the medical team. Security formed a circle around the dome, the unicorns armed with levitated batons, the others with capped hooves.
Lightheart gave Red the signal to open the dome. Red punched more buttons, and the generators whined again, pulling the dome up to the ceiling once more. Lunar Security tightened its circle around the prone Luna, who seemed to be more frightened of them than they were of her capacity to cause harm.
As soon as the dome was raised and locked, Red Button galloped down to join the medical team as they lifted Cloudskipper onto a stretcher.
“Is he going to be all right?” Red asked. “Hey, Cloudy, you hearing me?”
Cloudskipper opened one eye. “Oh, hey, if it ain’t our walking disaster factory,” he said. “Guess we forgot steel conducts lightning, huh…”
Red smiled, feeling tears in her eyes. “Yeah, looks like I better get to making you haybrains some real cool lightning-proof moon armor,” she said. “Get better quick, okay? I don’t want you to miss it when I cure the princess.”
Cloudskipper chuckled. “Sure thing, Red, sure thing. Just make sure you run it past the doc before you test another Mega-Harvester Four Thousand on her.”
Red blushed. “H-hey, that would have worked perfectly if you hadn’t-”
“Miss Button,” said Chief Medic Starcross, “we need to take Security One and get his heart looked at.” The honey-colored unicorn looked at Red, then at Cloudskipper. “As in, right now.”
“Right, right,” Red said, giving the medic a sloppy salute. “You go do that. Bye bye, Cloudy! Be good for the doctors and they’ll give you a sucker!”
Off went the medics, security buck in tow. Red meandered back up to her console alone.
Jupiter was still writing when Red got back, but he looked up as she approached. “Good friend of yours, I take it?”
Red laid her chin on the console and let out a long sigh. “Yeah,” she said. “When I was just a filly, I lived in Silver River, a tiny lil’ town a mile or two west of Cloudsdayle.”
“In the sky?” Jupiter asked, going back to his writing.
Red rolled her eyes. “No, silly. You see wings on this back of mine? Silver River was mostly just a trading post, a little valley where the pegasi came and got stuff they couldn’t make in Cloudsdayle.” She checked the magic suppression aerosol levels. They had enough for three more emergencies before someone would have to go back to the world below and get more resistant silver. “Anyway, Cloudskipper’s dad used to bring his skywagon down to pick up deliveries, and sometimes he’d bring Cloudskipper down with him. It was nice to have somepony my age to play with.”
“Ah, childhood chums, then,” Jupiter said. “Go on.”
“Hey, you’re not writing this down, are you?” Red said, peeking over Jupiter’s fuzzy shoulder.
Jupiter’s looked offended. “My dear filly, I am multitasking. I can hold a simple conversation and still monitor the goings-on concerning the serum.”
“Oh, right, sure,” Red said, slinking back to the console. “Sorry.”
“No offense taken,” Jupiter said, ruffling his feathers. He still looked offended. “Now as I said, go on. Did you ever date our heroic Mr. Cloudskipper?”
Again with the blush. Red mentally chided herself. If she kept doing this, it was going to stain her coat a new shade of red. “Uh, no, not really,” she said.
“I detect hesitations and half-truths,” Jupiter said with a somehow dignified smirk.
“H-hey!” Red stuttered. “I’m trying to tell you a story here, I don’t need you being a mule about it.”
“My turn for apologies then,” Jupiter said. “I meant no offense.”
Red snorted. She closed up the aerosol meters and sat down next to the griffin. “No, we never went out or anything. He’s always had his girlfriends in Cloudsdale; he and I just hang out a lot. Besides, he’s a pegasus, I’m an earth pony. It’d never work out.”
Jupiter looked up from his notes again. “Oh, I don’t think that’s really a problem,” he said. “If it’s a matter of breeding positions, you’re not the one with wings to get in the way.”
That was it. Blush mode engaged, all safety protocols disabled. “J-Jupiter!” Red stammered, smacking the griffin with a hoof. “That’s just… I never… you dirty old bird!” She trotted off. “I need to go check on the… uh, calibration of the… uh, I think I hear my laundry calling. Good day!”
* * *
Jupiter resealed the dome after the medical team left, leaving Security Two and Three inside the dome with Nadiri, Lightheart, and Princess Luna. The latter of these huddled on her cot, not looking up at the other ponies or zebra in the room.
“It took three times your estimated dose,” Lightheart said. “That is unacceptable.”
Nadiri gave him a scathing look. “My estimate was off of course, because it was at least half yours.”
“Regardless, we need to strengthen the dose next time,” Lightheart said. “We can’t afford to lose one of our security personnel every time we test a new serum.”
“Beggin’ your pardon, doc,” said Security Three, “but why do you need another serum? Doesn’t this one work just fine?”
Lightheart gave the tangerine earth pony an ‘oh look it can talk’ kind of look. “It doesn’t work, not in the strictest sense,” he said. “We’re here to treat her mental trauma, not just her physiological malformation.”
“You speak about us as if we were not even present,” Luna said, her voice muffled through the pillow she had buried her face in. She lay curled up on the cot, watching Nadiri with wide eyes as the zebra hooked her back up to the machine Lightheart had used earlier to measure her magical and mental output. The needle spiked and then normalized again, then spiked once more. Every time the needle climbed up, Luna shook her head and sat up straighter, and the needle sunk back down.
"Not my intention, I assure you,” Lightheart said. He looked at the spool of paper and noted the erratic nature of the readings. “Curious," he said. "Not accounting for the spikes, her average output is less than it was when she was asleep."
"Are the spikes at the same level as her sleeping state?" Nadiri asked. She looked down at the alicorn. "Are you drowsy, princess?"
"Only for a few moments," Luna said, resting her chin on her hooves. The needle spiked again and Luna bolted upright. "But we cannot sleep, we mustn’t sleep, not again. She will get us if we sleep. And then we cannot stop her from hurting somepony again."
Lightheart scratched his chin with a hoof. "Interesting. So sleep states are tied directly to this 'Nightmare Moon' state," he said. "What else can you tell me about your personified nightmare?"
Luna shivered and crawled off the cot to stand next to Nadiri. "You do not mind if we walk around, do you?" she asked quietly. "Mayhaps if we perambulate, we shall not be so drowsy and weak."
Nadiri looked at Lightheart, who nodded. "That is fine, princess, and do not concern yourself with speaking properly here. Canterlot, this is not. Oh, and mind the wires of the recorder," Nadiri said. "The more you do to stay awake, the smaller are the risks we take."
"Thank you." Luna paced about the isolation dome, occasionally stopping to scuff her hooves at discarded medical equipment and litter on the floor. She was effectively tethered to the spool recorder, however, so she did not get far.
"She's me," Luna said after a few moments. "She's me, only just the very worst pieces of me. Any time I was hurt, or displeased, or jealous, or angry, I shut it up and held it in. It made me feel better to think that everypony thought I was so strong and calm all the time, but it made me feel worse when things only got worse. I... I've been doing it a great deal since we... dealt with Discord."
"And these negative emotions," Lightheart said, "they became more active in your thoughts as time went on?"
Luna flapped her wings. "No. Well, yes. A little. But sister and I were trying to put the world back together. An eon of chaos did horrible things to the ponies who had never known the stability of unaltered reality. We, she and I, didn't have time for our own problems, and mine were small and pointless, really."
"Obviously not," Nadiri said, and went to work grinding up a copper-colored plant with green tips to its leaves. "You froze the world a month ago. Small and pointless? I think no."
Luna hiccuped and looked away from the two of them. "I know, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry. I couldn't stop. I tried... no, I didn't try. I had given up trying," she said. "And why should I have tried? I did as much work as Celestia ever did, put up with more hurt than she did, and nopony appreciated the cold beauty of my moon." She looked back at the doctors, her eyes narrow. "It served those simpletons right to live a while without their beloved sun."
Tap tap tap. Jupiter banged on the outside of the dome. Lightheart looked at him. Jupiter pointed at the spool recorder. Lightheart looked at it and did a double take. The spikes in mental energy and magic were growing more frequent, almost blending together into the Nightmare Moon reading.
“Nadiri, security, we need to get out of here,” Lightheart said. “Jupiter, prepare to open containment.”
Nadiri filtered the last of the leaves through a piece of gauze, and drained the pale amber liquid into a sterilized syringe. “This may hurt a little,” the zebra said, and stuck Luna with the needle.
Luna yelped. Her expression snapped back to normal. “What, what happened? Did I… did she…?”
“No, but the serum isn’t strong enough and doesn’t have enough duration to continue this conversation now,” Lightheart said. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Princess. For now, you have to sleep.”
“Sleep? No!” Luna scrambled away from Nadiri, tearing free of the recorder wires. “Don’t make me go back, don’t let her…” Her front hooves buckled, and she fell to her knees. “Uugh… I can’t… don’t… no… not again… no… please…?”
Then she collapsed. The transformation started again within seconds of falling unconscious. Her limbs and torso expanded, her mane began dissolving into starry mist, and her wings stretched and turned pointed. The starry blue armor sprouted from her very skin, and spread out into its full azure glory.
“Now, Jupiter!” Lightheart said. “And close it the moment we’re out!”
The griffin obeyed. The dome slid up as quickly as Red Button had said it would, and down just as fast, leaving only Luna in the dome. Except Luna wasn’t in the dome anymore, it was Nightmare Moon.
Nightmare pushed herself up from the ground and shook the powdered silver from her coat with a sinister black velvet laugh. “Very impressive, Doctor,” she said. Her voice was like a blade dipped in poisoned honey. “But you’ll have to do better than that to get rid of me.”
Lightheart stared at her through the glass, unblinking. “I fully intend to.”
* * *
For the next few days, while the Doctors went to work on a new version of their serum, Red Button went to work on new type of armor for the Lunar Security Unit. And design she did. She even managed to assemble, through requisitions and a back-channel favor from Cloudskipper’s father, enough materials to make two prototypes.
But when she presented the two suits of armor to Cloudskipper and Skyline, Red Button found her enthusiasm quashed.
“It looks like a shirt,” Skyline said. “A shirt with dinner plates sewn to it.”
The three ponies sat in the white confines of the medical bay. There were a half dozen cots lining the room, which for ease of storage folded into the walls. The trauma room was just off and to the left, though it was sealed until it was needed, which in a best case scenario would be never. Each cot had a pole above it for holding healing potions and IV medications.
Dinner plates indeed, Red thought. How blunt. Now she knew one more thing about Skyline.
“They’re pretty and all,” Cloudskipper said from his cot, “but I don’t see how they’ll really protect us as much as good Equestrian steel. And while I really ‘preciate your hard work, Red, I-”
“Shut it, Cloudy,” Red said, “and let me explain this stuff. ‘Kay?”
Cloudskipper sighed and lay his head down on his pillow as if expecting verbose explanations.
“These aren’t your regular shirts,” Red explained. “This stuff’s braided silk, woven by some of the giant spiders from Equestria’s southern woodlands. By thickness, it’s stronger than steel, and in this case, it’s about as thick as your previous armor, for only a fraction of the weight.”
Cloudskipper looked impressed. Skyline didn’t. But Red wasn’t done yet.
“Both suits are treated for magic resistance, and those ‘dinner plates’ you mentioned are the most badflank dinner plates you’ll ever see.” Red lifted one of the plates and tossed it to Skyline. “These plates have been treated with concentrated sunlight and pulverized diamonds, so they’re actually harder than metal armor, again with less than half the weight.”
Skyline raised an eyebrow. “You can’t concentrate sunlight.”
“Nope,” Red said, “but Princess Celestia can. I just mentioned in my engineering report that we needed a concentrated amount of solar energy in a certain location to rapidly bake an experimental material at high temperature.” She looked at her hoof. “And hay, in the long run, this does benefit Princess Luna.”
Cloudskipper chuckled. “Sounds like the Mega-Harvester Four Thousand again,” he said.
Skyline glanced at Cloudskipper. “Mega-”
“NOT important,” Red said, cutting her off. “Point is, with the silk the way it is, you can’t really be harmed directly with magic. Telekinesis got nothing on you. Lightning? Please. I bet even the most talented unicorns in Equestria couldn’t so much as make you grow a mustache.” She hesitated for a moment. “Well, I mean, Luna could still pick up something heavy and drop it on you, or throw something heavy at you, but the armor’s pretty resistant to that too. It can stop claws, or ablate a direct piercing from a horn. Blunt weapons, rocks, or hoofstrikes do next to nothing. And,” she said, nudging the two finished suits over to the security ponies with a self-satisfied smile, “I’d be honored if the first two who put themselves in harm’s way while protecting Princess Luna from herself would try them out.”
Cloudskipper gave the armor a second look, then shrugged. “You know what, Red? I trust you. But if this gets me killed, you have to tell Pap that it was your fault.”
“No,” Skyline said. “I don’t trust flimsy armor.”
“Aww, c’mon, Sky!” Cloudskipper said. “You trust me, don’t you?”
Skyline gave him a scathing look. “You’re not armor.”
“Nah but I’d take a lightning bolt for you like armor would,” Cloudskipper said. He batted his eyes at Skyline and gave her a charming grin. “Oh, wait! I already did!”
Red opened her mouth to say something, then shut it again. She didn’t want to look like an idiot in front of Cloudy and his new… whatever she was. “Look,” Red said, “with the reduction in weight, you’ll be far more maneuverable in this armor than you would be in steel.” She tapped the thinner plates and the silk mesh. “And plus, it’s lower profile, so you’ll be able to fit into places with this that you couldn’t with the bulkier armor.”
Skyline gave a snort, but spread the armor out over a hoof and looked at it for a few moments. “I’ll try it,” she finally said.
“There’s my girl,” Cloudskipper said.
Sky glared at Cloudskipper, but didn’t say anything. She slung the armor over her back and trotted out of the room.
Cloudskipper watched her go, then turned back to Red with a grin. “Nice flanks on that one, eh?”
Red rolled her eyes. “I’m not in the habit of eyeballing other fillies, Cloudy.”
“No?” Cloudskipper said with a grin. “Why not? Then you and me would have something to talk about!”
“Don’t make me test your armor,” Red said with a scowl. “Besides, we already got plenty to talk about, don’t we?”
Cludskipper shrugged. “Not really,” he said. “I mean, sure, we could talk about the good old days, but that wasn’t more than a couple of years ago, and I remember it just fine. We could talk about work, but what’s the point in that? And what else would we talk about, the weather? I don’t think the weather even changes here.”
Red sighed and hung her head. “Yeah, guess you got a point, Cloudy,” she said. “I’m pretty sure they’ll need me for something down in the main lab. Bye.” She walked out, but stopped in the doorway and turned back to look at Cloudskipper. “See you later?”
“Sure, I guess,” Cloudskipper said.
“I guess,” Red said, and headed out the door.
* * *
“And that makes the seventh,” Lightheart said. He magically lifted the syringe and dropped it in a small box designed to hold used needles so nopony stepped on them. “How does this one feel, Princess?”
Luna gave her azure wings a forlorn little flutter. “Not any better or worse than the last one,” she said. “This one doesn’t make my mind fuzzy, but it is upsetting my stomach.”
Inside the isolation room, there was less equipment than there had been earlier in the week, though the recorder still ticked and puffed away, monitoring how close to the surface of Luna’s mind Nightmare Moon was. The only things of real note sat on a short table near Lightheart’s hooves: a clipboard and pencils, the syringe box, a glass orb, and a vase of daisies.
Lightheart frowned. “That’s odd,” he said. “None of these herbs should do anything to the digestion. And you haven’t eaten anything in…?”
“I don’t need to eat,” Luna said. “Neither my sister nor I do.”
“I know that,” Lightheart said irritably. “Alicorns are the closest thing in existence to living, breathing magic, and magic hardly needs crumpets and cups of tea in order to continue existing. But just because it isn’t mandatory doesn’t mean you do not. I wanted to know if you have eaten something recently that might explain your indigestion.”
“Well I haven’t.” Luna stretched her wings and rolled over onto her side. “You’re an odd pony, Doctor Lightheart.”
Lightheart put down the clipboard he’d been levitating. “Come again?”
“You’re so wrapped up in your work that you forget you are working with other ponies,” Luna said. She idly tapped her hoof on the railing of the cot. “You want to help so much, but it is as if you forget who you are helping, and think only of what you are doing to help.”
“Is this a comment on my bedside manner?” Lightheart said. He put down the clipboard. “Because Nadiri is the medical doctor here. I am a crypto-psychologist and an Arcane Conundrist, and I am not obligated to fake niceness all the time like medical doctors do.”
Luna sighed. “No, it’s not a slight against your abrasive nature. You are only trying to help.” She rolled over to face the glass wall.
“We all are,” Lightheart said, and walked from the dome.
* * *
“Blast this confounded contraption,” Lightheart said. “All it is supposed to do is read peaks and respond with micro-doses.”
It had been a week since Luna’s last dose, and for once, the containment dome was quite full. Nadiri, Lightheart, and Security Pegasi One and Two occupied the dome with Luna. Two machines sat next to the ever-present spool recorder. One was a hoof-cranked motor attached to a beaker the size of a watermelon, which fed a thin clear tube of pale green fluid into the second, larger machine. The second machine had a series of gears and spools and twisty widgets in it that Lightheart didn’t recognize, but was intended to provide nearly real-time analysis of the current batch of serum’s effects on Luna’s blood chemistry. It received the serum from the first machine, and dispensed it to a patch on Luna’s foreleg, while another patch drew blood and filtered it through the machine as well.
“And it is doing what instead?” Nadiri asked, peering at the machines.
“Leaking,” Lightheart said. “Clattering. Sometimes it does nothing when it should be doing something.” He knocked on the copper casing of the larger machine. “What it is not doing is more annoying. It is not giving me readings. Not dispensing serum when it should. Not printing in aligned columns, and not putting time stamps on it where it should.”
Nadiri sighed. “Then call Red Button to this floor. That’s what you have a mechanic for.”
“I suppose you are right,” Lightheart said. “If it will get this working, I suppose I can put up with her naïveté and backtalking.”
“You are too hard on that filly, I think,” Nadiri said. “Why would you choose to hire her, if you are just going to be rude every time you speak to her?”
Lightheart looked back at Nadiri and snorted. “Because I hired her for her expertise and ability to keep secrets, not for her charming personality,” he said. “Her talents are enough to excuse some minor misbehavior, but that doesn’t mean I should coddle her. By royal edict, I am to get Luna to health as soon as possible, and Red Button’s antics are hardly helping toward that end.”
“Your royal edict does not say you have to be a mule,” Nadiri said. “Nor does it say you have to use assistants like a tool.”
“Why, I never!” Lightheart said angrily, then stomped a hoof. “It seems you are both against me.”
“We are both for you,” Nadiri said. “It is just a pity that you cannot see that.”
“Hmph.” Lightheart nudged the machine again, then gave up. “Jupiter, call Red Button down here to fix this machine, will you?” he said through the glass.
* * *
The griffin put down his notes and padded up to the control console. He pressed a diamond on the console and spoke into a grille above it. “Red Button, contact Isolation, Red Button, Contact Isolation.” His voice echoed throughout the facility, carried by the ‘can you hear me now’ spell.
After a few moments, the grille crackled to life with the sound of something being knocked over and falling on the floor, then somepony blowing their nose, then Red Button’s voice.
“Yeah, Jupiter?” she said. She sounded congested. “What’s up?”
“Are you all right, Red Button?” the griffin asked.
“Oh, yeah, peachy,” Red said. She sounded more like a prune than a peach. “Tell me somepony has some work for me to do.”
“Well, yes, actually,” Jupiter said. “Lightheart has the auto-tester and the injector hooked up to the energy reader, and can’t get them to interface properly.”
The sound of a derisive snort cut short by more nose-blowing assaulted Jupiter’s ears.
“That’s because he’s the wrong kind of egghead,” Red said. “Magic and good old-fashioned earth pony innovation don’t always work together right. I’ll come up and fix it.”
“Where are you now?” Jupiter asked.
“In my room, sulking.” More scraping sounds came from the speaker. “I’ll be there in two minutes and thirty seconds, give or take a couple.”
The gryphon shrugged. “If you say so. I’ll see you then.”
The speaker was silent.
“She’s on her way, Lightheart,” Jupiter shouted down to the doctors.
Indeed she was. Within a minute and forty five seconds, Red Button trotted through the doorway to Isolation. She made her way down to the central dome and tapped on the glass. “I’m here,” she said. “What did you break?”
Lightheart and Luna both looked up at the sound. Lightheart gestured for Red to come in. Red tapped the glass again.
Jupiter sighed and raised the dome.
“Make those work together properly,” Lightheart said as Red stepped into the dome. “Nadiri and I are going to take a break.”
“Yes sir, Doctor Lightheart sir,” Red said, giving him a sham salute with a hoof.
Nadiri and Lightheart stepped out of the dome, leaving just Red Button and security with Princess Luna.
Red walked up to the cot and tentatively raised a hoof. “Um, Princess?” she said. “I’m going to need you to come over here so I can retract and switch out that wiring.”
Luna gave a great heaving sigh and rolled over to face Red. “Oh,” she said. “A new pony. We did not recognize thine voice. Thou art?”
“Oh, uh, Red. Red Button,” Red said. “Mechanic and engineer, and recently, verbal bucking bag.” She shot a vile glance at Lightheart’s retreating flank. “I just want to make sure everything’s working properly so we can get you better quicker.”
“Red Button?” Luna said. She smiled. “As in ‘do not push the Red Button?’”
“Yeah, don’t push me,” Red said. “I’m liable to go off like a bundle of fireworks.”
“Or perhaps thou art likely to push buttons,” Luna said. “We do wonder whose brilliant idea it was to name an engineer filly Red Button. It seems as if thine parents were asking for trouble.”
Red chuckled. “Actually, it’s kind of a coincidence,” she said, opening up the side panel of the spool recorder. “My mama’s name was Cross Stitch, and my daddy is Patchwork. They both did tailor and seamstress work.”
“So thine name is the sewing term, not the engineering one?” Luna said. “Amusing.”
“Sure,” Red said, “though you have to admit they have a common thread.”
Luna giggled and held a hoof in front of her mouth. “We might say thine analysis hangeth by a thread. But we would not needle thee about it.”
“You could say it’s laughable enough to leave you in stitches,” Red said. She smiled at the princess. “Looks like you got a penchant for puns too.”
“We do,” Luna admitted. “It pleases us to find another with our sense of humor here in this facility.” She looked pensive for a moment. “We don’t suppose… thou wouldst consider it improper if we treated thee as a friend? The royal Canterlot mode of speech does become tiresome after a time.”
“Um, sure?” Red said, tentatively offering her hoof.
Luna took it and smiled. “We… I could use a friend here,” she said. “This close to the moon, everything is so cold and lonely.”
“Not to mention you got some kind of lunacy going and need the support,” Red said with a grin.
Luna didn’t smile this time. She looked away.
“Ooh, bad word choice, sorry,” Red Button said. “Well, checking on all the parts of the facility does keep me real busy, but I’ll try and drop by when I can, okay?”
Luna gave Red a weak smile. “That… that would be acceptable.” She glanced over at the non-functional machines and scooted closer to them as Red had asked her to earlier. “Are you going to repair these, then?”
Red turned to the machines. “Yeah, that’s what I’m here for. You comfy, Princess?”
“Yes, as much as I can be,” Luna said. “And you may call me Luna here.” She looked downcast. “I am no princess here, and I rule no subjects. Banished here, I am no different than you.”
“Oh sure you are!” Red said. She began opening the casings of the other machines and wiring them into one another. What had Lightheart done to the machines? They were an awful mess! “You got the powers, you got the looks, you got the charm. I’m sure if you put your mind to it instead of worrying about what’s happened or how to fix things, you could rule the moon just as much as Celestia rules Equestria.” She saw the smile fade from Luna’s face. “I mean, in your absence of course. Once you’re better, I’m sure things will go back to normal.”
Luna sighed. “I hope in my heart of hearts that you are correct, Red Button,” she said. “That might make this banishment more… tolerable,” she said. She relaxed on the cot, and laid her chin on her crossed forehooves. “You are very kind, for an engineer.”
“And you’re pretty personable for a princess,” Red said through a mouthful of wiring. “S’cuze, I gotta finish this before Lightheart gets all manner of pissy at me.”
Luna sat quietly for a few minutes as Red finished rewiring and leak-checking the machines. The sharp clatter of metal on metal and wrenches on bolts filled the containment dome.
Red stepped back and looked at her hoofwork. “There we go. That should just about do it. You can scoot back and get yourself more comfy now, if you like,” she said.
“Will you come back?” Luna asked, leaning forward on the cot. “Perhaps… tomorrow?”
“If something goes wrong, sure,” Red said. She opened the front panel of the spool recorder, just to double check that everything was in proper working order. She rapped a hoof on the brassy casing, satisfied with her work. “I mean, that’s what they pay me for.” She didn’t feel like telling the princess exactly why she’d volunteered, but now wasn’t the time for that anyway.
“And if nothing goes wrong?” Luna asked.
Red paused. The princess sounded so hopeful. “Well, I’ll have to drop by anyway,” she said. “Wouldn’t want you making a problem if there isn’t already one to fix.” She smiled. “That sound good?”
Luna nodded. “Yes, yes it does.” She looked at the machines. “I suppose you are leaving now, then?”
Sad. She’d actually fixed them already, so there wasn’t any reason to stay. “Yep. It’s all set, so I’m just going to…”
Damn it. She couldn't resist the puppy dog look Luna was giving her. Red reached back into the recorder and pulled a single blue wire loose. "Oopsie, looks like this might take a while to fix."
Luna beamed. Literally. A soft blue glow spread from around the princess, and stars appeared in her azure mane.
"Holy-!" Red backpedaled and the security pegasi leapt forward.
"Wait!” Luna said. “I am in control, fear not. The nightmare still rests, at least in my waking hours. To thank you for your kindness, I would show you this."
The midnight alicorn's horn swirled with an amethyst glow shot through with sparks of electricity. More stars appeared in her mane and tail, glittering like diamonds. Pinpricks of light, like miniature stars themselves, winked into existence inside the containment dome and floated about, sorting themselves into constellations. Within a minute, the entire dome looked like a starry night sky.
Red drew in a deep breath, awed at the sight. "This is... this is really pretty," she said. "It's accurate, too. How do you know all this?" She realized what she'd asked a moment late and clomped a hoof to her face. "Right, sorry, princess of the night and all that."
Luna chuckled. "I do indeed spend a great deal of time watching the stars," she said. "Sometimes, it is almost as if I can hear them speaking to me. Sometimes I talk back, when there is no one else to listen." She looked as if she were far away for a moment, brought back by Red tapping a hoof on the ground. The illusory starfield shattered into black mist and faded away.
"Don't fall asleep there, Princess of the Moon," Red said. "I don't care if the stars are singing you a lullaby or what, but if you fall asleep with me in here, Nightmare's likely to make a bloody pony paste out of me." She gave the princess a sympathetic look. "You don't want that, I don't think."
"No, of course not," Luna said. "I merely-"
"Red Button?" Lightheart said through the communication spells. He and Nadiri were back, waiting outside the dome. "Are you finished with the repairs?"
Red sighed. "Sorry, Luna, I gotta finish this up and go. But I'll come back tomorrow, I promise."
Luna looked sad but a bit hopeful. "That is good. We shall see thee on the morrow, Red Button."
"Yes, O Princess of the Moon," Red said, saluting the princess with a hoof. She turned and plugged the blue wire back in, and slammed the machine closed. She flipped the power switch. The steam engine on the back of the spool recorder rattled to life and the injector hummed as its internal spells reactivated. Red turned to face the doctors. "All ready for ya, docs," she said. "Everything should be working proper and playing nice with each other now."
Jupiter raised the dome. Red began winding her way out while Nadiri and Lightheart walked in, the latter immediately examining the machines.
“Hmm,” Lightheart said. “The injector is receiving readings from the recorder as it is supposed to.” He looked at the floor beneath the machines. “And there appear to be no leaks. Red Button?”
“Yessir?” Red said, cringing as she stopped. Now what was he going to complain about?
“Excellent work,” Lightheart said. “I’m not sure how you restored functionality to this mess, but you did. Thank you.”
Red stood in shocked silence for a moment, then stammered. “O-oh, uh, th-thanks, I guess. That’s my special talent and all. You could have just looked at the manuals I wrote for you, though.”
“There was a manual?” Lightheart said. He looked around the bare steel floor. “Where?”
“In the box the injector came in,” Red replied, then grinned. “You eggheads too good to read a manual? It told you how to put it together right and everything.”
Uncharacteristically, Lightheart didn’t seem to have anything to say.
Part Five: An Ill for all Cures
“Medical team to containment immediately, repeat, medical team to containment!”
Red started awake. The gems embedded in the hallways and rooms of the facility shouted with Jupiter’s voice summoning the doctors, loudly enough that it had nearly made her bolt out of bed. She leapt down from the bunk and pulled on her utility barding. If somepony had gotten hurt badly enough to need the medical team, it was a safe bet that there would be something that needed fixing there too. She hoped nothing she’d designed had exploded. Some of them were unstable, unstable enough to explode more than once, even.
The gems bellowed again, but by this time, Red was in Containment with the medical team right behind her.
“Move it!” Starcross demanded, and leapt clear over Red Button’s head. He landed just shy of the inner dome, and darted inside.
Red halted and stared at the inside of the dome. The other two medics rushed past her as she stared.
Luna lay limp on her cot, stuck halfway between herself and her Nightmare Moon transmogrification. Her armor had formed partially, covering her torso and creeping up over her head, and though she was larger than her normal self, the sizing was uneven. Her right foreleg was too large and looked constricted by the armor, since the armor was currently proportionately sized for Luna, not Nightmare Moon. Her tail had dissolved into starry miasma, but her mane was still intact, though it flashed and sparked with the tiny stars Red had seen the day before.
But most shocking was the blood. Red stained Luna’s pillow and the front third of the cot. As Red watched in horror, Luna turned her head and vomited more blood into a bag magically held by a very worried-looking Lightheart. Nadiri hastily checked the recorders and the fluid levels in the injector, and Security one through four, including Cloudskipper and Skyline, stood ready for whatever might happen.
“Luna!” Red charged into the group of ponies, knocking one of the medics aside. “Luna, are you…?”
“No, she is not,” Luna said, but her voice sounded strained, deeper, with an edge of worry. “You, child, you are the one helping lock me away, and I will not have it!” Her eyes flared white and lightning crackled around her horn.
Red barely had time to cringe before the bolt lanced out at her. But she wasn’t struck.
Cloudskipper had thrown himself in front of the bolt. His armor smoldered and smoked, but the pegasus remained resolute and stood his ground between Luna and Red Button.
“I am really really glad this armor is as good as you said it is,” Cloudskipper said over his shoulder.
“Thanks, Cloudy,” Red said. She pushed past him and locked eyes with the twisted Nightmare. “I don’t want to talk to you,” she said. “I want to talk to my friend.”
“Bahahaha!” Nightmare Moon laughed. She sounded like she was choking. Perhaps she was, as she vomited more blood. “Luna has no friends. She has none but me, for I make her strong!” She glared at the ponies beneath the dome. “With the strength I give her, she can do whatever she pleases, be that usher in an era of night eternal or crush that green planet to dust with this very moon!”
Red felt a tremor in the floor through her hooves. It was subtle at first, but a second more violent one vibrated the entire dome.
“Earthquake?” Skyline asked worriedly.
Lightheart snorted. “Hardly. We are on the moon, remember?”
“Regardless of location, this event is still a quake,” Nadiri said. “I think this is unnatural. We should precautions take.”
“If it gets worse, I’m ordering an evacuation,” Cloudskipper said.
“This is insane!” Skyline said. “If she’s moving the moon closer to Equestria-!”
Red stomped a hoof. “But princess Luna is-!”
Cloudskipper rounded on Red. “Princess Luna is priority number two!” he said. “Princess Celestia told me herself that no more ponies were to lose their lives over Luna, no matter how close we were to curing her.” The white buck looked back at Luna. “Because if she ever did recover, she’d never forgive herself for what she’d done to us. Isn’t that right, Luna?”
Nightmare Luna writhed, and then burst into tears. “Yes, get away,” she said. “Get away from me. I can’t fight her any more. I’m so sick and weak…” Her eyes glowed again and her voice shifted deeper. “Yes, weak, far weaker than I. What chance do you stand?” Less glow, less lightning. “…none. I can’t fight you anymore. I’m too tired.”
“H-hey!” Red said. “You can’t quit, you’ve only been Princess of the Moon for a single day! You can’t give up now!”
Cloudskipper looked confused. “Princess of the-?”
“Shut up and roll with it,” Red said through clenched teeth. “We want you to get better. Get better so you can go home and see your sister.”
“M-my sister?” Luna struggled to the surface long enough for Red to see her eyes turn back to normal for a moment. “Tia? I… I miss her already…”
“No you don’t!” Nightmare said, slamming a hoof against the cot’s frame, bending it.
“I do!” Luna snapped. “She and I went through so much… and now she’s doing so much while I fight you…”
“You cannot fight me and win, you little foal. I have too much of you already.”
“But Celestia would be sad if I gave up any more of me to you!”
“What does it matter if she is saddened? She banished you to the moon!”
“Because of what I did, and only to save the ponies you were hurting! It is you who is banished here, not me! And when I am free of you, I am going home!”
Red watched the exchange between the two personalities with consternation. She felt like she should jump in and say something, but Luna seemed to be winning the argument fairly well on her own.
“You don’t have a home!” Nightmare countered. “You burned it to cinders and froze it to pieces.”
“We did,” Luna agreed. “And unless I go back, without you, I cannot make it right.”
“And do you think they will let you? Your sister may very well never trust you again.”
Luna hesitated. “I… I wouldn’t blame her if she didn’t,” she said. “But all I can do is try, isn’t it?”
“And when you fail?”
That stopped Luna in her tracks. “I… if I…”
“She will not fail.” Lightheart stepped closer to the princess and the monster rolled into one. “She will not fail because of the two princesses, Luna has always been the stronger at heart.”
“Me?” Luna sounded confused.
“It cannot be you,” Nightmare said. She stretched and leaned toward the unicorn. “You accept defeat and banishment as easily as you accepted me.”
Lightheart looked right into the nightmarish eyes. “It was Luna who led the defeat of Discord when Celestia could not. It was Luna who helped rebuild the world in just a few years. And it was Luna who backed out of the spotlight and let Celestia become the loving figurehead for her ponies.”
“That makes her weak!” Nightmare’s horn sparked furiously.
“On the contrary,” Lightheart continued, “doing what was right, despite the solitary loneliness that it entailed, was what drove her. She loved her ponies with all her heart, and that gentle strength is what will drive you from her now. If Celestia was strong enough of will to defeat you despite whose form you wear, what will Luna do to you?”
“But it’s true!” Luna spoke again. “After I have spent so long in the shadows and the night, others have finally shown me that they appreciate what I have done. I will not give that up, not to you, not to any creature!”
Red clopped her hooves together. “You tell ‘er, Luna! Tell that big meanie to leave you alone!”
“Fine!” The miasma swirled around Luna like a whirlwind. “I will abide, for now. But I will return when you need me, as you inevitably will.”
More bolts of lightning, and Luna lay still. But her form remained the same, malformed and twisted. Only her eyes and tail had returned to normal.
Luna stirred and sat up, looking incredibly tired, as if she’d just fought a bloody battle and emerged victorious. She looked down at her malformed body and gasped in shock. “Wh... what is this? I thought she said...” She flailed her oversized leg and twisted wings. She winced. “What happened to me?”
She turned to look at Lightheart, and vomited more blood. He jerked the bag up to her lips, catching almost all of it this time.
“You seem to have had an adverse reaction to some part of the serum,” Lightheart said. “I am, at this time, unsure which part or what ingredient has provoked this... effect, but we will begin testing to find out what it was. In the meantime, we will try and filter the serum out of you now.”
Nadiri gave Lightheart a quizzical look. “If you remove the serum from her blood, will she not revert to the Nightmare?”
“I do not believe so,” Lightheart said. He levitated an optical scope and began examining Luna’s eyes with it. “This transformation, this curse, is as much magical and mental as it is physical. You, my dear princess-”
“Princess,” Luna said with a sickly smile. The armor still remained half formed on her head, tangling her mane. “Of course I retain my title. I remain Princess of the Moon as long as the moon is mine. Unless I’ve been replaced with a member of your staff and haven’t been informed yet.”
“What? Princess of the...” Lightheart looked at Luna, then at Red. Then he shook his head. “This is your fault, isn’t it, Red Button...”
Red chuckled. “Like I told Cloudy, just roll with it,” she said. “So what makes Luna unlikely to change back without the medicine?”
Lightheart put his scope away and retrieved a stethoscope from a collapsed table and pressed it against Luna’s neck, then attempted to listen through her armor. He shook his head again and gave up. “Luna has just won a major victory against the clinging doubts and hateful thoughts at the back of her mind. I would postulate that this will keep the transformation at bay regardless of whether she takes the serum, at least for a time.”
“How long?” Luna asked.
“I’ve no idea,” Lightheart said. “But hopefully long enough for us to develop a serum variant that your entire body isn’t horribly allergic to.”
Luna sank back on the sodden mattress and choked back a sob. “I will bide. I ask that you make haste, though. I cannot tolerate this much longer. Even this victory feels like it cost me a piece of my heart.”
Red took a few steps and sat down on the cot next to Luna. “Hey,” she said, and put a hoof over the princess’s shoulders. Luna was trembling like she was cold, or trying to resist bursting into tears. “Look, Luna, you don’t have to go through this alone. Your sister picked us because we’d be here for you. If we can share your struggle, let us. We don’t mind. Do we, doctor Lightheart?” She gave the cream-colored unicorn a pointed stare.
Lightheart took a deep breath, then released it slowly. “I have an academic interest in your ailment, Princess,” he said. “I will make no attempt to deceive you on that account. But perhaps…” He paused for a moment. “Perhaps it also matters to me personally that you recover. Perhaps I don’t want to disappoint your sister, or you.” He lowered his head and looked right into Luna’s eyes. “Perhaps, I am, as you said, an odd pony. But I am an odd pony who cares about his patients, and adores his princesses.” The tip of his nose touched Luna’s. “If you will forgive me for my callousness, I will do my best to be more understanding.”
A tear rolled down Luna’s twisted cheek. “Of course, Doctor Lightheart,” she said, managing a half smile. “It seems my number of friends has been doubled.”
“And your doctors have much to do,” Lightheart said. “We will need to start the serum purge right away. Red Button, I’ll call you back when you are needed to restart the machinery.”
“Oh,” Luna said, “let her stay? Please?” The puppy-dog eyes were focused on Lightheart this time. “I find her presence cathartic.”
Lightheart shot Red a quizzical glance. She shrugged.
“Very well,” Lightheart said. “But at the very least we’ll need to get this area cleaned up.”
* * *
Clean up they did, though it was complicated by Luna still feeling very ill, and finding her mobility severely impeded by her half transformation. Within the hour, though, they replaced the soiled and destroyed cot and other damaged implements, and got Luna settled back down.
Red hummed to herself tunelessly as she began disassembling the injector to remove and clean the old serum out of it. There were so many moving parts in this machine that she had to be exceptionally careful not to drop any of the tiny pieces of clockwork, or pinch any of the thin and delicate pipes.
Chief Medic Starcross finished his examination of Luna, and had a whispered conversation with Lightheart outside the dome, which Red couldn’t hear. But from the look on Lightheart’s face, it didn’t look terribly positive.
Luna had apparently been watching too, as she looked more miserable than she had before.
Red put the casing back on the injector as the machine vented golden green fluid and water into a bucket on the floor. “Well,” she said. “That kind of makes for an exciting night, eh?”
Luna sighed. “I should never have wished for more exciting nights,” she said. “I am beginning to miss the smiling faces of ponies dreaming through my peaceful nights.”
“Aw, now don’t worry about that,” Red replied. “We’ll get you back to being happily ignored in no time flat.”
“I wish that were true, I really do,” Luna said, “but like this…” She waved her malformed hoof and wings. “Like this my subjects will loathe and fear me.”
“Well, you are pretty ugly right now, not gonna lie,” Red Button said. She hopped up onto the cot and lay down, waiting for the injector to finish cleaning itself. “But Lightheart said you’d be back to normal once we got your allergy attack under control, didn’t he?”
Luna shook her head. Her starry mane was still all tangled up in shards of armor, and would have put rat’s nests to shame for how disheveled it was. “To me, yes, he implied as much,” she said, and gestured with her horn to the conversation outside the dome. “But from what they say out there…”
“Whoa, you can read lips?” Red asked.
Luna chuckled. “Yes, fear the mighty powers of your princess. This is what comes of being bored at royal functions.” She gave Red a conspiratorial look. “Plus, I’ve gained much information that way. Some of our nobles think that lowering their voices is enough to keep their snide personal remarks from the ears of their princess.”
“There’s no defense like a good auditory offense, eh?” Red said with a snigger. “I should make some recording talismans so I can do my own snooping.”
“And then I’d have you arrested for espionage,” Luna said, smiling again. “Either way, the medic says that this… transmogrification… is not all the fault of the serum, and that he believes it to be at least partially self inflicted.”
“Huh?” Red tilted her head. “I mean, sure, I get that you’re super magic and all, but transforming halfway, unintentionally?”
“Alicorns are made of magic, Red Button,” Luna said. “To a much greater degree than even unicorns are. If you drained all of a unicorn’s magic, you would have a unicorn with a dim horn and a hard time lifting objects by herself. If you drained an Alicorn of all her magic, there would be hardly any of us left. Without magic, our corporeal bodies are as small as most foals.”
“So bigger is better,” Jupiter said. “Is that where bucks got that ridiculous idea?”
Red started. She hadn’t noticed the dome hiss open again, but there the griffin stood, a large tablet of paper in one claw and an inkpot balanced atop it.
“How uncouth,” Luna said, but she still smiled. “And you are?”
Jupiter bowed, his wings sweeping the floor. “Jupiter Tailwind, scribe.”
Luna squinted her eyes for a moment, then they lit up in recognition. “Jupiter! By the stars, it has been ages since I’ve seen thee.” Her smile looked bittersweet as she examined the old griffon. “How quickly time passes...”
“And yet it seems only yesterday that I had the pleasure of botching aerial maneuvers for you,” Jupiter said with a smile. “I did finally master that trick, but there’s scant room in here for aerobatics. Instead, I’ve business to attend to.” He lifted the inkpot and sketchpad. “Lightheart and Starcross requested I capture an image of your current altered state in order to study it without disturbing you.”
“You would sketch us like this?” Luna flailed. “I will not allow that. This indignity should have no place in posterity.”
“Posteriority,” Red said with a giggle. “I don’t think Jupiter is trying to be an ass about it, he just wants to get this sketch done so he doesn’t get behind on his work.”
“With me in this state of arrears?” Luna said. “I think not.”
“It’s nothing to rumple your feathers over,” Red countered.
Jupiter chuckled. “Continue this banter if you must, but I have work to do.”
“Heh,” Red said. “Jupiter said ‘butt.’”
The griffin looked offended. He was a master of the ‘I am offended’ look, apparently. “Now which of us is being uncouth?”
“Just get your work done and get out, you dirty old bird,” Red said with a smile.
So he did. The griffin plucked one of his sharper-looking quills, and went to work. He sketched the princess from different angles, and even drafted one from memory, of her in her normal form, talking to Red Button. The latter of these he passed to the princess, who smiled when she saw it.
“Could you perhaps hang this on one of the machines?” she asked Red. “It would give me something besides bare walls to look at. And perhaps something to hope for, as well.”
“Sure thing, Princess of the Moon,,” Red said. She rummaged in her toolbox, found a magnet, and stuck it and the paper to the side of the injector.
“Well, I am off,” Jupiter said. “My best wishes to you, Princess, may your recovery be swift as the west wind.”
Luna nodded as Jupiter bowed again. Then he left the dome, leaving the clicking of the auto-tester the only sound inside the dome.
“Well,” Red Button said, after a few moments of silence, “it looks like the machines are all cleaned out and tweaked back to perfect condition. I gotta go back to bed.” She rubbed her eyes and yawned. “Waking up in the middle of the night isn’t exactly the best thing for job performance, and I need to be in top form when the docs decide what they’re going to do next.”
“Falling asleep at all isn’t at all the best thing for my sanity,” Luna said, looking at the floor and kicking a hoof. “But everypony deserves a respite from looking after me. I do not mean to be such a burden, but I…”
Red thumped the Princess’s head with her hoof. “Hey now, royalty or not, you don’t get to whine. Buck up, girl. We can’t get you better if you’re not helping too, and I really don’t want to listen to whining. Seriously.”
Luna gave Red a sad smile. “I’m sorry, Red Button. I must sound like such a foal, blubbering all the time. This is hardly appropriate behavior for a goddess, or even for a Princess.”
Red stifled a chuckle. “You know what, you’re right. You are acting like a little foal.” Luna looked shocked for a moment before catching on to Red’s joke. “And foals need their naps. You must be exhausted after all of this, and after all of that not-sleeping you’ve been trying to do.”
Luna yawned, then started awake again. “Yes, yes I do find myself weary. But if I fall asleep, then the Nightmare returns…”
“You know what,” Red said, “when I was a little filly, my mama would always sing me lullabies to keep me from having bad dreams. Maybe that works on Nightmares too.”
“You want to sing me a lullaby?” Luna looked at Red Button askance. “That is preposterous.”
“Doubly so since you don’t know how badly I sing,” Red added with a chuckle. “But hey, it can’t hurt if I just sit here and hum tunelessly to myself while you try and get some sleep, can it?””
Luna shrugged. “I suppose not. Thank you, Red Button.” She lay her head down, neck bent to accommodate the heavy helmet, and closed her eyes.
Cloudskipper watched the two warily, but gradually relaxed as Luna’s half transformation didn’t gain progress either way.
Red hummed to herself some more, lying next to the drowsy princess. Eventually Luna’s breathing turned regular. She was asleep. And she had not turned back into Nightmare Moon. It might be the first restful sleep the princess had gotten since her initial change back in Equestria, Red thought.
“Psst! Red!” Cloudskipper hissed and pointed at Luna.
“Shh, you’ll wake the princess,” Red whispered. “What?”
Red looked at the prone princess. To her amazement, the armor had receded an inch or so out of Luna’s mane. “Guess she’s getting better, then,” Red said softly. She watched the armor. It didn’t move any further.
“I think it’s you,” Cloudskipper said. “Your humming, I mean.”
Red chuckled. “Sure, it is.” She looked at the security Pegasus. “Wait, you’re serious, aren’t you?”
Cloudskipper nodded. “Keep doing it, and watch.”
Red shrugged and began humming again. It was a tune she half remembered, or maybe she didn’t really remember it at all, and she was just stringing bits and pieces of drinking songs and lullabies together. But as she hummed, the armor seemed to resonate with the sound somehow, vibrating softly and emitting a faint unpleasant keening.
Red stopped humming, and the armor remained in place. “Huh,” she said. “Cloudy, go get Lightheart. He’ll want to see this.”
“Already on top of it,” Lightheart said as the dome hissed open once more. The unicorn and his griffin scribe walked and padded into the dome. “Jupiter, take note of which pitches affect that armor, and at what volume.”
“I will do my best,” Jupiter said. “I had anticipated needing paper, not music sheets, so this may consist entirely of rough estimates.”
Lightheart sat down a few feet from the bed. “Go on, Red Button.”
“Huh?” Red looked from Luna to Lightheart and back. “You want me to-?”
“Keep doing whatever it was you were doing,” Lightheart said. “The princess is making genuine progress because of…” He waved a hoof. “…whatever this is. And I will use all avenues to get her cured as soon as possible.”
“O...okay,” Red said. She took a deep breath and began humming again.
And she did so for an hour. Jupiter scratched away with his quill, recording pitches and volumes, noting when the effects were more pronounced and when the humming was ineffective.
Eventually Red’s voice started to crack and give out. Her throat felt dry and rough. “Doc?” she whispered. Her voice sounded raspy even to her. “That’s all I got.”
“Good work, Red Button,” Lightheart said. He looked over Jupiter’s feathered shoulders. “You’ve gotten us more raw data on this phenomenon than I could have hoped for. Now to determine what it means...”
“Well, I think that’s the whole thing,” Jupiter said. He offered his sheaf of notes to Lightheart.
The unicorn nodded and wrapped them in telekinesis. He floated them in front of his face and scanned the lines. “Hmm, irregular,” he said. “But then again, we are dealing with Red Button.”
“Hey!” Red protested. “What’s that supposed to- oh.” She noticed the smile on Lightheart’s face. “Wait a minute, when did you start having a sense of humor?”
“The minute we started making genuine progress despite the failure of some of my best work,” Lightheart replied. “Now, eliminating all the ineffective notes, volumes, and durations, what patterns are there?”
Jupiter pointed at a few spots on the second page. “I’m unsure whether miss Button did this on purpose or not, but she repeated this phrase multiple times,” the griffin said. “Each time, there was a minor shift and reduction in the visible size and density of the armor.”
“I’m a doctor, not a cellist,” Lightheart said. “I do not read musical notation. Can you hum it?”
“I’m a scribe, not a kazoo,” Jupiter said, smirking at the unicorn. “I can write music down but do not make the mistake of trying to make me perform it if you value your eardrums. Make Red Button hum it.”
Red grimaced. “I don’t read music either. Can you just hum the first bit and I’ll try and remember what it was?”
Jupiter rolled his eyes. “Fine, but do not say that I didn’t warn you.” The griffin hummed the first bar of music he had written down. He was not as bad a performer as he said he was, Red noted. She also recognized what it was he was humming.
“Oh, that,” Red said. “Yeah, I think that’s part of an old harvest festival song uncle Plowshare used to sing. ‘Course, he was always drunk when he was singing it, so I don’t really know the words beyond ‘shiHAIIInin’ gowlen feeeeelds hey Red make your pap gimme another whiskey.’”
The griffon chuckled. “A happy song for happy times,” he said. “Though that does make me wonder; is it the music itself or the good feelings associated with it that are helping more?”
Lightheart scrunched up his face and narrowed his eyes. He must be thinking, Red realized. She’d only seen him concentrate this hard when working on the initial formula, and again when he was trying to figure out what had caused the recent mishap.
“A fair question,” Lightheart said. He glanced at the rest of the papers and then set them down on the table with the machinery on it. “Both princesses rely on their innate magic, bolstered by the positive energies generated by their happy subjects. It is… possible that positive emotional states may do more to restrain the Nightmare’s power and more to restore Luna, but…” He trailed off.
“But to get in contact with her subjects, it would require us to bring her back to Equestria again,” Jupiter said, “and that would put not only your kingdom in danger, but also many others. Eternal night would be no kinder to the griffins.”
“Or the zebra,” Nadiri said. She walked into the dome with a satchel over her back, which she deposited on the empty table which had earlier held medical equipment. “Eternal night is not much fun. We cannot live without the sun.”
“And Celestia said we weren’t to put her ponies in danger again,” Cloudskipper reminded the group. “Even if it’s a possible contribution to Luna’s recovery.”
“Right,” Red said sourly. “Thanks for that, Cloudy.” She crept down off the cot, careful not to disturb the sleeping princess. Sure, there were still bits of metal sprouting from her mane, and her leg was still two sizes too large, but at least she looked comfortably asleep. Some of the magical starriness in her mane had even come back, drifting and twinkling as Luna dreamed.
“Look, I’m about dead on my hooves,” Red said. “Unless you need me for anything else, I’m going to hit the hay, so to speak.” There was, of course, no actual hay anywhere on the moon, even in this complex, unless she counted the stuff in the food dispenser, and that was supposed to be food, not bedding.
Lightheart nodded. “Of course, Red Button. Your contribution tonight has been invaluable.”
“Sure, you say that now,” Red said as she left the dome. “Just wait until something I built explodes.”
Jupiter chuckled, and Lightheart just shook his head.
Red headed out of the containment area toward her quarters, but found herself stopped by the sound of somepony clearing their throat in the hallway. She stopped and turned her head.
Medic Starcross waited for her just inside the small recreation area that adjoined the sleeping quarters. Two low couches lay on the in front of a shifting magical mural of scenery from Equestria, and bright light bathed the area. The carpet was a dark, grassy green. The ensemble was another of Red’s designs, actually, built to compensate for the alien nature of the lunar surface, and for Lightheart’s data on lack of sunlight having direct corrolate-o-thingies to depression. Whatever it was he called it, it was an effect Red knew all too well.
A half-dozen chairs circled a table on the other side of the room, near the ‘cafeteria,’ or giant bins that dispensed preserved food when a pony pushed the right button. It wasn’t much worse than what she made at home, Red knew. After all, she was a mechanic, not a master chef.
In the center of it all stood Starcross, with a tan satchel slung over his back in place of the medical bags, and a quite unexpected look of approval and respect on his face. The unicorn’s golden yellow coat and brown mane both looked glossy under the artificial lights, and even the crossed comets of his cutie mark seemed to glow.
“That was really quite a thing you did for the princess, miss Button,” Starcross said. “You ran headfirst into a situation you knew nothing about, got in the way of trained medical personnel, and somehow were still able to do more for her than I could with modern medicine.” He smiled. “I just wanted to… well, thank you. It means a lot to all of us.”
Red could feel the blush on her cheeks. “Aw, it weren’t nothin’,” she said, scuffing a hoof on the steel floor. “Just being all bullheaded as usual.”
“Have you ever thought of a career as a nurse?” Starcross said, walking over and sitting down on one of the couches. “You have a much better bedside manner than our mutual friend Dr. Lightheart.”
“Quarry eels have better bedside manners than Lightheart,” Red grumbled. “No, I’m good with fixing machines, not ponies. Thanks for the compliment, though.”
Starcross nodded. “You’re welcome. After this breakthrough, you more than deserve the praise.”
Red walked across the room and leaned against the frame of her doorway. “Sound like you’re buttering me up for something,” she said. “What is it you want?”
Now it was Starcross’s turn to look embarassed. “Well,” he said, “since we haven’t seen progress this dramatic since the first serum, I was hoping I might convince you to build an apparatus to duplicate the effect of your, uh, humming...”
“Sure, sure,” Red said. “I can make some diagrams and operational sketches before bed, but I ain’t building anything. I got about enough energy to flop down on my cot and that’s it.”
Starcross nodded. “Of course. Sleep tight, Red Button. We’ve far too much work to do in the morning for you to afford sleeping poorly.”
Red rolled her eyes. “That’s the story of my life,” she said. “‘Night, Starcross.”
Starcross inclined his head, then left the room.
Red caught herself watching his flank on his way out. She rapped her hoof on her skull. “Hey, stop that,” she muttered. “You just got done moping over Cloudy. None of that nonsense.”
She walked into her room and closed the door. The bed and an enormous red-painted metal toolbox were the only pieces of furniture in the room. The only decorations were a hoof-stitched quilt hanging on the wall opposite the door, and a teal vase of daffodils. The latter were coated with glass, effectively preserving them in the hostile lunar environment.
Red Button flopped down on her bunk with a sigh. She only hoped Luna would feel a measure of peace tonight, too. First thing in the morning, she would sketch a doodad that replicated the sound of a pony who didn’t know how to sing, humming a song she couldn’t remember...
Part Six: Living the Dream, Living the Nightmare
Night lasted too long, or perhaps it was just that Luna hadn’t woken up yet. When Red Button got to the the Containment area, it wasn’t the lunar princess who stood in the center of the round room, but rather Nightmare Moon. The black winged unicorn stalked back and forth in the enclosed space, gazing intently at Lightheart and the other researchers.
Red dropped the clipboard she’d been carrying. It bounced off the ground with a metallic clang. “What... What is she doing here?” Red asked, turning to Jupiter.
Jupiter shook his head. “We are as yet uncertain,” the griffin said. “The readings hadn’t changed from baseline since you sang her to sleep, and all of a sudden, she’d changed and incapacitated Security One.”
“Cloudy?” Red ran to the side of the glass. “Why was he still in there? Is he okay?” Her voice cracked. “Did she... did Nightmare...?”
The black alicorn laughed softly. “Well, if it isn’t my most beloved subject,” she said. Red almost felt the temperature in the room drop, and her mane prickled as if it were standing on end. “Don’t fret your clever little head over the pegasus.” She motioned with a blue-armored hoof at the prone body of Cloudskipper. The security pegasus lay quite still, but Red could see his chest slowly rise and fall. The central ceramic plate of the armor Red had designed had a jagged crack in it. “He is quite all right... for now. I think that you and I should have a little chat.”
“You let Cloudy out of there, then we’ll talk,” Red said, trying to sound braver than she felt. She glanced over at the white unicorn. “Lightheart, why didn’t you tell me she’d transformed again?”
“Because it was, and still is, a medical mystery, not a mechanical one,” Lightheart said. The unicorn didn’t look up from the scrolls he had spread across one of the research tables next to the dome. “Were I puzzled by a sudden change in lag-bolts or wing-nuts, I would have consulted you.”
Red opened her mouth to say something snide, but shut it again. No sense in snarking at Lightheart right now, especially when they had just come to some manner of truce the day before. Instead, she put a hoof against the glass.
“Hey, Luna?” Red said. “Wake up, the Nightmare’s got you again.”
Nightmare Moon snorted derisively. “You little foal. Are you trying to cause more harm to our dear princess?”
Red cocked an eyebrow. “What? No, of course not. What do you mean?”
The alicorn walked to the side of the dome Red stood at, and planted herself in front of Red Button, opposite the thick glass. Her motions were fluid and almost imperceptible, like a deep river at midnight. “Lightheart said the young Princess needed her sleep, did he not?” She gestured at herself. “Well, as you can see, I am awake, and she is not. She has not slept this well, or this long, in weeks.”
“You look awake to me,” Red said.
“Admitting she and I are one and the same now, are you?” Nightmare smiled. “The wonders never cease. And that is precisely the subject I demand to speak with you about.”
Red looked back down at Cloudskipper, then back to NIghtmare. “Cloudy first. Then we talk.”
Nightmare stomped a hoof. Sparks shot out from the contact of shimmering blue armor on steel. “You do not order me about, you nuisance,” she said. Her eyes narrowed in irritation. “I have the superior position here: you cannot harm me without direct orders from Celestia, and I can do quite literally anything I choose to the pegasus, Cloudskipper, you said his name was?” Blackish purple light smothered Cloudskipper as Nightmare’s horn began to glow. She lifted him off the ground and held his wings outstretched. “I can do literally anything I choose to Cloudskipper, and you are all powerless to stop me. Even were you to flood this chamber with that filthy silver fog again, I would still have time to do something like... perhaps... break his wings?”
Red gasped. “You wouldn’t!”
Lightheart looked up from the scroll. “She’s bluffing, Red Button. Pegasus wings are almost impossible to damage, unless they do something catastrophic. You could drop a two-ton boulder on Cloudskipper’s wings and he would be fine.”
“Oh, so the good doctor Lightheart thinks he knows something about the resilience of ponies, does he?” Nightmare’s horn flared, and a sword made of lightning flickered into existence. “Have you ever seen the magic of a goddess used against one of her subjects?”
“You’re bluffing,” Red said, but the pit in her stomach told her something else entirely.
“Not to add a worry for either of you,” Nadiri said, “but what the princess says is technically true.” The zebra put a hoof on the dome’s control panel. “Should I douse her, make her damp? In her magic put a cramp?”
Lightheart shook his head. “No. Because she won’t do it,” he said, and looked back at his scroll. “Besides, we’ve precious little resistant silver left to waste before our resupply on Thursday.”
“Lightheart!” Red trotted over to the unicorn and pressed her nose against his, glaring into his eyes. “You’re risking Cloudskipper’s life over a hunch? How dare you!”
The white unicorn looked up from his scroll again. “Because I am the most sadistic, uncaring, apathetic excuse for a doctor that ever set hooves on the moon,” he said. He rolled up the scroll with magic and bopped Red on the nose with it.
Red started and almost fell over on her haunches. “Huh? Bwuh- what?”
“Doctor Nadiri,” Lightheart said, “limited as she is by the interference of Princess Luna, is Nightmare Moon, in your estimation, capable of performing magic as powerful as Discord’s?”
“Discord?” The zebra shivered, and it looked like her very stripes shivered on her hide. “No. Thankfully not. He was a god of chaos, not night. His magic was not used for harm, but spite.”
“But he did have the power to alter living ponies,” Lightheart said. “Even to removing a unicorn’s magic, or a pegasus’ wings, yes?”
Nadiri nodded, but didn’t say anything.
“Only Discord’s magic could remove a pegasus’ wings without harming him,” Lightheart said. “And restore them later, if he chose. You, on the other hoof...” He turned his gaze to Nightmare Moon. “You could only carve them off like a farmer chopping brambles.”
Nightmare bristled. “What? How dare you? You will show me proper respect!”
“I am,” Lightheart said. “Monster.”
“Lightheart!” Red bucked the unicorn in the shin. “Stop antagonizing her!”
Lightheart crumpled, gritting his teeth. He struggled back to his hooves and gave Red Button a fearsome look.
Nightmare laughed. “Ah, now I see what Discord saw in the strife between ponies. You would kick him there, of all places...”
“What?” Red recoiled from Lightheart. “What did I...?”
“That monster has wounded my leg once before,” Lightheart said through clenched teeth. “And now she’s used you to do it again.”
“I...I...” Red stammered. “I’m sorry, I didn’t...”
“Think before you act,” Lightheart said. “Nightmare won’t lay a feather on Cloudskipper because if she does, she loses her leverage to make us converse with her, her facade of civility, and any chance she had to get through to you, Red Button. Would you talk to her if she cut off Cloudskipper’s wings?”
“No bucking way,” Red said and glared at Nightmare Moon. “You so much as touch a feather on his wings, and I rig that machinery to put you down and keep you down so hard, it’ll be a new moon all year round.”
Nightmare paused, and the blade of lightning dissipated. “You... are all smarter than you appear.”
Red couldn’t shake the feeling that Nightmare was right. It wouldn’t be hard to appear smarter than how dumb she felt right now.
Lightheart nodded, and limped back up to the table. “Go ahead and speak with her, miss Button. She won’t harm your friend.”
“I will not.” Nightmare Moon lowered the unconscious Cloudskipper to the bed. “I merely wish to converse.”
“Maybe try NOT threatening my friends with violence first next time,” Red grumbled. “That don’t exactly put me in the kindest frame of mind.”
“Your kindness is not what is required,” Nightmare replied. She approached the glass near Red again. “I require your logic and common sense.”
Red’s stomach was still in knots, but she managed to keep eye contact with the twisted princess. “You let Cloudy go,” she repeated. “As a sign of good faith. Then we talk all you want. Okay?”
Nightmare Moon stared into Red’s eyes. Red shuddered. It felt like she was staring into the night sky, except that the stars were watching her right back. And they weren’t friendly stars. For a few moments, the only sound in all of Containment was the whirring of the fans that circulated the air.
“Very well,” Nightmare said, after what seemed like an eternity.
Red let out her breath in a rush. She hadn’t realized she’d been holding it. “Jupiter?” she said, nodding at the dome.
The griffin dipped his beak, and approached the dome. Nadiri opened it so the griffin could retrieve the prone pegasus. Nightmare Moon’s watchful eyes followed him the whole way: from the moment the dome opened, the whole time the griffin was inside, and until the dome closed again with Jupiter and Cloudskipper safely on the opposite side from the black alicorn.
Red watched as Starcross arrived, watched as he examined the fallen pegasus, and watched as they took him to the medical ward. For recovery, Starcross said. Cloudskipper was almost unharmed. Concussed a bit and with a few bruises, but other than that he was fine.
“Well?” Nightmare Moon said once the medic and his charge had left and the dome was resealed.
“Well what?” Red said. “You’re the one who wanted to talk.”
A smile tugged at one corner of the alicorn’s mouth. “So you are willing to converse after all.”
“Sure, if you got something to say that’s worth listening to,” Red replied. “So what’s your two bits’ worth?”
Nightmare lay down so that her head was level with Red’s, though on the other side of the glass. “You, little one, have shown remarkable persistence. Persistence and loyalty to someone you barely know.”
“I know Luna,” Red objected.
“Hardly. You have known her for what, perhaps a month?” Nightmare said. “That is barely enough time to make an acquaintance, much less form a friendship.”
“Some ponies make friends in a day or two,” Red countered. “And I’m pretty friendly.”
Nightmare snorted. “We noticed. At any rate, we have much to discuss. As I watch and feel the clumsy pokes and prods of this doctor,” she said, waving a hoof at Lightheart, “I notice that he has not yet puzzled out what it is that makes us strong, and what makes us resistant to his foalish medicines.”
Red quirked an eyebrow. “Oh? Let me guess, you want to give up a secret about you in exchange for something,” she said. “Before you even start, tell me what you want so I can tell you to stick it in your eye.”
“That is hardly a good way to begin negotiations,” Nightmare said, “but I will allow that slight to pass unnoticed. I want you to stop interfering with Luna’s plans.”
“Okay, now, what?” Red stomped a hoof. “I’m helping Luna.”
“Hardly.” Nightmare sat back on her haunches. Her starry miasma of a tail spread out behind her, trailing like mist across the steel-plate floor. “Luna asked for help from the stars, did you know that?”
Red blinked. “From the stars?”
Nadiri bristled. “Nothing good comes of trafficking with the stars,” the zebra said. “They are the first weapon of those who lust for power, and the last resort of the desperate.”
“And Luna asked for your help?” Red asked.
“You still misunderstand,” Nightmare said. “I am not a star, not an alien to this body. Not entirely. No, I am Luna. I am her resentment, her bitterness, her jealousy and anger. I am her strength, the voice she never raised in protest, not during the reign of Discord, nor before, nor in the ungrateful and undeserving peace that followed.”
Red scratched her mane. This was confusing. “So you’re not from the stars, you’re something the stars twisted inside Luna?”
“No, I was always here,” Nightmare said. “Only recently did the stars give me a voice of my own. I am everything that Luna wanted to say and never did. I am all the hurt feelings she bottled up and never released. I am all the times she chose to say nothing rather than something in order to preserve peace and harmony. All it took was a push from above, and my new perspective granted me all this.” She gestured at her lithe, powerful body and magic-filled mane and tail. “This is everything I could have been but was too weak to speak up and take for myself.”
Red wrinkled her nose. This was something new. How was the team supposed to fight Nightmare if she and Luna were one and the same?
“When we asked the stars for help, I awakened,” Nightmare said. “We are one, she and I, with all our hopes and dreams the same. I merely do what she cannot bring herself to because she is too kind.” She pressed the tip of her horn against the glass dome. The black alicorn of the horn glowed softly. “I will show you, if you wish.”
Red backpedaled, her hooves skittering on the metal. “Whoa, nuh-uh! No freaky unicorn goddess magic! I’ve seen enough of that already today and I’ve only been awake for fifteen minutes.”
Nightmare scowled. “Come now, Red Button. I have already proven this day that I am being civil and reasonable. Do you not trust me?”
“Sure, about as far as I could throw a buffalo,” Red said. She stopped and tapped a hoof to her chin. “Though with a big enough catapult...”
“I believe that’s unwise, Red Button,” Lightheart said. “You’re neither a unicorn nor a psychologist.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Red glanced back at the unicorn. “You think I can’t handle it?”
“Do I think you incapable of dealing with the memories of a goddess and still retaining enough of your own personality and memories to function coherently afterward?” Lightheard said. “Yes, I do. I think you would find yourself mentally drained back to fillyhood. I can’t have my chief engineer turned into a vegetable because she doesn’t understand memory magic.”
“I will be gentle with your assistant, I promise,” Nightmare said. “After all, would it not ruin my ‘leverage’ as you put it, to hurt her in any way?”
Lightheart put a hoof down. “Regardless of your intent, Red Button is no unicorn, and cannot handle magic of that caliber.”
“Oh yeah?” Red turned back to Nightmare. “Says you. I think I can handle it just fine.”
“Don’t be silly, Red Button,” Jupiter said. He didn’t look up from his scroll. Apparently what was happening at the moment was too important not to record. “Letting a twisted version of the goddess tamper with your mind is foolhardy and brash.”
“Two of my defining character traits,” Red said, not looking away from Nightmare. “Along with a third: not liking being told I can’t do something. Let’s do this.”
Nightmare’s horn blazed black and purple, and Red felt something hit her mind like a sledgehammer, even through the resistant glass.
“Red! No!” Jupiter lunged forward, scattering scrolls and beakers, but Red didn’t see what became of the griffon, because her world melted away in a wash of starry, starry night.
And then it was daytime.
Red blinked against the sudden sunlight. She hadn’t seen the sun unfiltered by the black domes of the lunar facility in months, nor seen it illuminate the blue sky and green grass in...
Wait, blue sky and green grass?
Red looked around. She stood atop a hillock looking down on a valley with a beautiful cerulean river that sparkled as it rambled down the valley’s center. It glinted in the sun as it flowed through pebbly shoals and bent around the homes of the ponies below. It was warm and breezy, and was probably early summer or late spring. The breeze ruffled Red’s mane, and she chuckled. This was the kind of weather she loved.
“Wonderful, isn’t it?” Luna said, staring wistfully down at the ponies in the valley. They pranced about, playing with a multicolored ball, kicking it back and forth between themselves across the river. Sometimes it fell in, and a pony splashed in after it, or a unicorn plucked it out with her magic.
Red looked over at the star-spangled princess lying in the grass beside her. “Yeah,” she said. “I know this valley. This is Silver River. I lived here... but you knew that already, didn’t you?”
Luna closed her eyes and nodded. “Our meeting of the minds is just that: a meeting. I learn from you as you learn from me.”
“That’s creepy.” Red shivered. “So you know everything that’s in my head now?”
“Of course not,” Luna said. She looked mildly offended. “I said I had something to show you, not that I was going to pry into your secrets. If I wanted to, though...” She waved a hoof at the pastoral scene below. A rusty red earth pony filly with a crimson mane splashed into the river below, chasing after the bright, rainbow-colored ball. Before she could reach it, a white pegasus colt with a blue mane and tail swooped in and snatched the ball from in front of her.
Red could hear the filly squeak. “Cloudy! Give that back!”
The colt laughed. “Come and get it, button-nose!”
Red put a hoof over her mouth. “Y-you...”
Luna smiled. “It was hardly difficult to find your memories of home,” she said. “They were very close to the surface of your thoughts. As they should always be.”
“Still, why him?” Red said, gesturing at the young Cloudskipper.
Luna gave Red a sideways glance. “He was not far from your thoughts either.”
Red blushed and turned away to pluck up a dandelion. She chewed on it to fill the awkward silence.
“I watched this for years after Tia and I saved the world from Discord,” Luna said softly. “It took time for the memories of the horror to fade. Some ponies had lived their lives, never knowing that the world could stay one color or temperature for more than a minute, or that razzleberry jam wasn’t normal precipitation, or that not all trees were carnivorous.” She shivered and rustled her wings. “But within a few decades, life had returned to normal.” She lay her chin on her forehooves. “Every day they went about their lives as if nothing had happened at all. They worked, they played, they laughed and loved. Every night they slept and dreamt sweet dreams.”
The world shifted. It became evening, then night. Clouds ripped across the sky as if they had urgent appointments elsewhere. The moon rose as a dusty white sphere, tinged yellow by the haze of clouds at the horizon.The ponies in the valley retreated to their homes, ate their dinners and tucked in their children, and drifted off to sleep.
“I watched them, as I should. It was my duty as the guardian of the night,” Luna said. Her voice sounded a little cracked to Red’s ears. “But never once was there a single pony who stayed up to watch the stars, to gaze at the moon. They slept through my beautiful night.” She stomped a hoof. The blue armor gouged a chunk of sod out of the hill.
“It wasn’t fair. We’d saved them, Tia and I, and now they couldn’t even be bothered to look at the beautiful night I laid out before them? It wasn’t fair! It wasn’t right!” Now Red could hear more than just rage in the twisted princess’s voice. There was the uncomprehending sadness, the frustration. “What could I do? All I wanted was for somepony to notice, to look at what I had made, and... well, as selfish as it sounds, maybe I wanted a little ‘thank you’ now and again.”
“Not unreasonable,” Red said, staring down at the grass. “But eternal night? Dontcha think you took that a bit too far?”
“Of course that was too far,” Luna said. But something about her voice was off now, like a half-remembered horror that made Red jumpy. “Or maybe it was exactly what was necessary.”
Red looked up at Luna, alarmed. Luna was shifting again, transforming into the Nightmare once again. Her mane and tail bled off into a cloud of shining stars and blue mist, her features sharpened, the armor grew right out of her flesh, and her expression hardened.
“If the ungrateful little creatures couldn’t even be bothered to see the beauty I laid out for them every night, they would appreciate it if they could see it during the day, would they not?” Nightmare, now standing her full goddess-like height, looked down at Red Button. “And did they?”
Red couldn’t meet Nightmare’s gaze. “No,” she whispered. “At first we thought it was weird that it was still night. But then the sun didn’t come up for days. The river froze almost solid. Sweet Tooth’s granny got pneumonia and died.” She looked up at the warped goddess. “Apple Brandy’s whole apple crop was ruined. Mama got so depressed without the sun that she wandered off. We found her body in the river. Frozen just like the water.” Tears pricked the backs of Red’s eyes. “And I told myself that when the sun came back, I would find out what had happened. And I did.”
“So you understood my anger?” Nightmare said with a smile.
“No.” Red planted her hooves on the turf. “What I understand is that everypony’s got a breaking point. Luna found hers. And when I heard about it from Lightheart, I jumped at the chance to rescue the kind and generous Princess Luna from whatever had made her so selfish and hateful.” She stretched her neck up to get her nose as close as possible to Nightmare’s. “Back from you. And I’m gonna do it. I’m not gonna let you, not her, not anypony, let a single mistake or moment of weakness ruin the rest of their life. You got that?”
Nightmare whinnied and reared. “You ungrateful wretch! I show you the night as I see it, I show you my pain and suffering, my innermost thoughts, and you still mock me?”
“Nope. I finally understand just how to get through to you.” Red dodged back as Nightmare slammed her star-shod hooves into the ground where the red pony had just been. “Now lemme outta here, I got some talking to do with Luna!”
“Oh, you are going somewhere, most definitely,” Nightmare said. “To the deepest depths of your darkest dreams.”
“What?” Red said. “I don’t-”
Her sentence ended in a shriek as the peaceful night was ripped away from around her and replaced with a long uneven corridor lit with flashing alarm lights. Smoke and humidity choked the air, so thick Red could barely breathe. At the far end of the corridor lay a gargantuan piece of burning machinery, with rotating blades oscillating near the front, and a smiling apple painted on the side. Between her and the machine, filling the bottom of the corridor, shallow oily water glimmered red in the flashing lights.
Red stared in shock. The Mega-Harvester Four Thousand. What was it doing here?
Nightmare laughed “You had better stop that machine before it hurts somepony,” she said. Her voice drifted in the thick air, without a visible source.
“Y-yeah,” Red said. She took a few steps into the water and stumbled. She’d almost put a hoof down a submerged hole. She could have broken her leg! Red hesitated. She couldn’t see through the water to get proper footing, and if she hurt herself, she’d never get to the harvester in time. But if she didn’t run, she wouldn’t get there in time either...
“What’s wrong?” Nightmare said. It wasn’t really a question. She laughed, that same sinister laugh she’d had the first time Red had seen her. “Hurry now, lives are in danger from something you built.”
Red shook herself. “C’mon, buttonhead, you don’t have time for this.” She took another hesitant step. This time there was a sharp pain just above her fetlock. “Yow! Oh... oh no...” She lifted her right foreleg out of the water. A shiny black lump had fastened itself to her leg, and sat there, pulsing slightly as it sucked blood. Leeches.
Red whinnied and leapt out of the water. She frantically scraped her leg against the ground, struggling to dislodge the compact black worm. “Ah! Aaaaah! Gettoff! Get off!”
Nightmare’s laugh, nothing but cruel now, echoed in the darkness. “Enjoy your sleep, Red Button, enjoy your dreams. After all, it is in my power to make your dreams come true. And these dreams?” Again the cold, uncaring laugh. “These dreams will last forever.”
The water lapped at the edge of the ground and began spilling up over the edge of the dry section of corridor. Red shrieked and backed away. The black water crept toward her. Unspeakable things writhed just below the surface, slimy horrors that clamored noiselessly for a tiny sip of blood. One tiny sip wouldn’t hurt, but a million tiny sips? Red retreated to the center of the rapidly shrinking dry spot in the center of the corridor.
At the opposite end, the flaming machinery lurched to life and lumbered and clattered out of her sight. Moments later, screams and cries for help echoed down the tunnel. “Red! Red! Help! Stop it, it’s out of contr-aaaugh!”
Tears burst from the red mare’s eyes as she huddled at the center of the now tiny dry patch, trying to make herself as small as possible. “I can’t...” she choked between sobs. “I can’t, I’m sorry, I’m so, so sorry...”
Then with a roar of wind and a cataclysm of light, spears of pure brilliance shattered the opposite end of the corridor from the machine. White-blue comets detonated against the blackness and scorched a path through the oily water. Red lifted her head and turned her face toward the light and sound. The glare hurt her eyes for a moment, and then as her vision cleared, she saw the two unicorns standing in a ragged doorway of light.
Starcross and Lightheart.
“Red!” Lightheart shouted. His voice sounded tinny and far away. “Wake up, Red Button!”
“Come on, miss Button,” Starcross said. He sounded calm, but with just a hint of worry in his voice. His soothing, chocolaty voice. Red shook her head. Where did that come from? “I know you can hear us. Don’t give up, you understand? Come back to us.”
Red struggled to her knees, then to her hooves. “Come back from where?” she asked. She took a step into the water. Again, there was a sharp twinge on her leg. Her whole body was shaking. “I didn’t go anywhere! I’m right here!”
“We’ve done everything we can,” Lightheart said. The two unicorns began to fade back into the light. “You’ll have to find the way back yourself.”
“And if you’re a good little filly, you can have your pick from the candy bowl when you get better,” Starcross said. His smile was almost as brilliant as the raging comets behind him as he disappeared. “I haven’t lost a patient yet. Don’t be my first.”
Things snapped into focus. How could she have forgotten? Red looked down at the leeches crawling up her legs. They weren’t real: none of this was. She’d only had leeches bite her once. They hadn’t even hurt, they were just something scary-looking she’d gotten on her as a filly while playing in the swamp. Papa Patchwork had taken it off her with the tip of a seam-remover, and that was that.
She took another step. Her hoof slid deeper than she’d expected, but it hit solid ground still, not a gopher hole. Anypony could lose their footing, no matter how sure of hoof they were. A few bad experiences with overgrown fields weren’t going to keep Red Button from having adventures.
She took another step. The screams faded and the fires went out. The Mega-Harvester 4000 hadn’t hurt anypony, it had just... She chuckled. It really had made a mess, hadn’t it? And with what she’d learned from those mistakes, she’d made a four-thousand ponypower engine that could cage a goddess in two seconds flat.
She took two more steps. The light was fading. Three, four more steps. The comets flickered in the dark and smoke, collapsing inward as the darkness pressed them against the tattered hope of a doorway out.
Five, six steps, a canter, a trot, a gallop! Red sprinted for the luminescent doorway and leapt into it, moments before it flashed and collapsed into nothing. And then Red’s world was nothing but brilliant stars.
Part Seven: A Lunar Eternity
Red Button woke up to the sound of the steady beeping of a heart rate monitor. She opened her eyes and looked around. From the circular design and the medical equipment, Red guessed she was in the trauma bay. The monitor’s beeping sped up as she lifted her head to look around.
“Red!” Starcross said, leaping to his hooves and abandoning the chair he’d been lying on. “You pulled through! I knew you had it in you!”
Red tried to say something but found herself smothered by a hug from the golden stallion. “H-hey, easy,” she muttered softly. “Medical patient and all.”
Starcross pulled back sheepishly. Was it Red’s imagination or was he blushing too? “Of course, of course,” he said. “Though technically inaccurate. You’re technically a coma patient.”
“Coma what now?” Red blinked. “Wait, Nightmare knocked me out? How long was I down? Is Luna okay?”
“Easy now, miss Button,” Starcross said, placing a comforting and restraining hoof on her shoulder. “Luna is fine, but the Nightmare is furious. In the three days you’ve been unconscious, she’s been doing everything she can to break out of Containment. We’ve had to use two of our remaining emergency magic suppressants just to keep her from smashing important medical equipment or breaking the containment dome itself. Worse, she shielded herself against the second blast of suppressant, and we can’t risk wasting the last one.” He scuffed a hoof against the floor. “Lightheart isn’t saying it, but he needs your help. Badly.”
Red looked down at the blankets on the gurney. “Three days, huh? Well, looks like my work’s held up about as well as I’d hoped.” She shucked the blanket and rolled off the gurney onto the floor. “Okay, Starcross. Two things. One, stop calling me ‘Miss Button.’ It sounds like the exact opposite of a targeting spell.”
Starcross chuckled. “All right... Red Button. And number two?”
“Two, gimme back my barding. I got work to do.”
* * *
Containment was a mess. Spiderweb cracks splayed over the inner surface of the containment dome. Several mangled pieces of equipment lay about in useless heaps, most notably the auto-tester. The battered wreck looked forlorn to Red, with its glass panels shattered, needles bent, and its spool of paper hanging haphazardly out and dangling across the floor.
The rest of the staff were present. All Security units stood outside the dome, watching the pacing Nightmare’s every move. They looked haggard, as if they’d not had enough sleep recently.
But they were glad to see Red Button. Cloudskipper was the first to pounce.
“Hey! You made it and everything!” Cloudskipper said. He’d tackled Red and knocked her to the plated ground, holding her down long enough to lick her face. “I told old Grouchy McMagicpants that you’d pull through!”
“Yeesh, Cloudy!” Red protested. “Get off! It’s not like I was out a whole week or anything. Besides...” She looked at the dilapidated state of Containment. “...I’ve got a lot of work to do.”
The pegasus lowered his head and backed off. “Sorry, Red. I was just really worried, is all.”
“She’s fine,” Starcross said. The medic unicorn placed himself between Cloudskipper and Red with what Red considered a jealous amount of protectiveness. “My patients always recover. Now get back to your post. The next few minutes may be critical to Luna’s recovery.”
Red nodded. “It’s okay, Cloudy. We’ll talk later, a’aight?” She looked across the room to where Skyline was giving her a look that was something a cross between a puzzled, quizzical look, and a death glare.
Cloudskipper nodded and returned to his post. The other security ponies focused their attention inward. Nightmare had surrounded herself with a glowing purple and white shield, and was chipping away at the glass with an armored hoof. The starmetal seemed to have but little regard for the tempered glass, and it seemed that sooner rather than later, the glass would give out, and the Nightmare would be loose.
Red sauntered up to the command console where Lightheart, Jupiter, and Nadiri stood. “Hey,” she said. “I leave for a few days and you ponies make a mess of things. What’s up with that?”
“Save the snide remarks,” Lightheart said. “I’m under no delusions about your competence, Red Button, but right now, we need some way to lower that shield of Nightmare’s, or we will be unable to administer the final serum.”
“Final?” Red blinked. “You mean you perfected the recipe?”
Nadiri turned to face the red mare. “We have cooked up, as fate decreed, a magical cure, a solution indeed. And how is your head?”
“I kinda feel violated,” Red said, rubbing her skull with a knee. “But it could have been much worse. I guess Luna was still watching out for me a bit in there.”
“I would ask what it was like, but it would jeopardize my objectivity,” Lightheart said. The white unicorn didn’t look up from the console. “Consider yourself in a elite group, Red Button. Only Starswirl the Bearded and the inner circle have ever directly touched the mind of a goddess.”
Red shivered. “They can keep it. I’m gonna stay inside my own head from now on, if I can help it.” She looked into the Containment dome. “So, aside from the finalized serum, did you make any other progress while I was out?”
Lightheart scribbled something else on the scroll and then put down his quill. The dusty grey light of his magic faded from around the feather as he glanced over at Red Button. “Yes,” he said. “I had a long and involved conversation with Princess Celestia about the sonic therapy you discovered.”
“Sonic therapy?” Red quirked an eyebrow. “What do you mean?”
Jupiter fished around in his satchel and withdrew a slice of quartz the size of Red’s hoof. He passed it off to her. “Take a listen to that,” he said.
Red nudged the crystal with her nose. It glowed softly, and began producing sound. It was Princess Celestia’s voice, singing, of all things, a lullaby.
Hush now, quiet now
It’s time to lay your sleepy head
Hush now quiet now
Drifting off to sleep, the exciting day behind you
Drifting off to sleep, let the joy of dreamland find you
Hush now, quiet now
It’s time to lay your sleepy head
Hush now, quiet now, it’s time to go to bed...
Red gasped. “H-Hey! That sounds like uncle Plowshare’s drinking song!”
Jupiter grinned. “It is, repurposed as a lullaby,” the griffon said. “Celestia introduced it at the solstice celebration. She sang it to calm a crying filly. In front of a crowd of more than fifty-thousand ponies.” He breathed on his claws and polished them on his chest feathers with a self-satisfied smirk. “Excellent acting on both their parts, and excellent script-writing on my own, if I may toot my own trombone.”
“So all of Equestria’s picking this up?” Red said, offering the griffon back his singing gem.
“Indeed,” Jupiter said. “And given Lightheart’s data on how positive and negative emotions affect the princesses...”
“...then hundreds, thousands of loving parents will sing their foals to sleep with this song, every single night?” Red said. This was incredible. Her jaw gaped a little bit. Uncle Plowshare had been a drunk and farmer, not a magical psychologist, but his favorite song was about to become something important. “That means that every single night, a good chunk of Equestria’s population will be singing...”
“Pure love and adoration,” Lightheart finished. “At this distance from Equestria, the sonic part of it will be insignificant, but the emotional output should more than compensate.”
Red clapped her hooves together. “Huzzah! Sounds like we got a plan! So, with that boost, do you think your serum can stop her before she wrecks the whole place?”
“No.” Lightheart sighed and laid his chin on the desk. “It’s hopeless.”
Lightheart shrugged. “The affects of the song notwithstanding, we are unable to administer the serum while her Luna’s magical shield is active. We can’t attack her directly with the suppressant while the shield is active, either. Unless we can somehow convince her to drop the shield, it’s hopeless.”
Red stopped and thought for a moment. Then her face lit up with a sneaky smile. “I know how to get Nightmare’s attention,” she said. “It might bring down the shield, so be ready with the suppressant spray.”
“You’re not going to try anything stupid, are you, Red?” Lightheart said, though there was a smile on his face.
Red chuckled. “Of course I am. Have you known me to do anything else?” She walked up to the dome again. Nightmare stopped chipping at the glass as she approached.
“Hey,” Red said. “Or should I say hay?”
“Oh, the foal survived,” Nightmare said, not batting an eyelash at the pun. Luna must have been buried quite deeply to not rise to a pun that bad, Red thought. “It seems I underestimated you ponies yet again.”
Red nodded. “Discord underestimated ponies too,” she said. “And look where it got him. You turned him into stone.”
“Something I would do to all of you, if I still had the Elements,” Nightmare said, her eyes narrowing. “And I may yet. As soon as I free myself from this wretched enclosure, nothing will stand against me.”
“Hey, you take that back, you bald-headed meaniepants!” Red said, her mane bristling. No one called her machines wretched.
Nightmare whinnied. “I am not bald, you cretin!” She said, and leaned close against the glass. “My magnificent mane is merely mostly magic.”
“Your fancy alliteration doesn’t make you less bald,” Red Button said, and stuck out her tongue.
“Oh, that does it,” Nightmare said, her eyes glowing bright green. “You will be the first to experience eternal nightmare once I am out, I promise you that.”
Red snorted. “Hmph. Already been there. It wasn’t that impressive.” She looked back at Jupiter and Lightheart, and gave the two a wink, then looked back to Nightmare and placed a hoof on Containment’s glass bubble. “Not as impressive as some things you’ve done.”
“Oh?” Nightmare gave Red a glare. “Such as?”
“The night,” Red said simply. “It’s beautiful. I never noticed from down there, but up here, where you can see it nearly all the time? I finally get a chance to appreciate it.”
Nightmare balked. Her shield flickered. “W-what do you mean?” she said. “Ponies do not revel in the night, they... they...”
“They love it when they don’t have to be scared of it,” Red said. “So, thank you, Luna. Thank you for the beautiful night.”
A single tear trickled down Nightmare’s cheek. Her expression remained unchanged, but the single drop spoke volumes. And in a crack of light and sound, the shield dropped.
“Now!” Lightheart said, and slammed a hoof down on the control console’s big red button.
A hundred thousand drops of sparkling water joined the one that dripped from Luna’s chin. Nightmare reared and flared her wings. “Treachery! Tricks and treason!”
“No,” Red said softly as the dome hissed up and the Security team tackled the sodden goddess, “That wasn’t the trick. I mean it. I really do. And I don’t want to be scared of the night anymore. Nopony should be.”
Nightmare put up a horrendous struggle, but without her magic, her physical strength was no match for the four pegasi and two earth ponies. They pinioned her and restrained her to the cot once more.
Red walked into the dome, bringing with her the injector unit. Lightheart hooked it up to Nightmare’s leg. Red flipped the switch.
“The trick,” Red said, “is that we never wanted to destroy the Nightmare to begin with, so much as awaken the dream beneath.”
* * *
The final serum, administered in micro-doses at measured intervals, weakened Nightmare to the point that after two days of the improved recipe, Luna re-emerged. Her body shifted in a cloud of light, back down to its proper size and shape, though notably with fewer stars in her mane. An hour after that, she woke up.
“Hey,” Red said. “Welcome back.” She leaned on the machinery next to the cot, chewing on a slice of dried apple.
Luna opened her eyes and blinked a few times. A look of panic crossed her face. “Red Button! I am sorry, oh I am so, so sorry, I couldn’t stop her at all, and-”
Red stuffed a second piece of apple in the princess’s mouth. “Oh shut up. We’ve been there already.” She chuckled, a crumb of apple still stuck to the corner of her mouth. “Look, the doctors figured out that we were attacking the wrong magic with the serum.”
“Whish mashic?” Luna said, then looked embarassed and swallowed her piece of apple. “Not mine, I take it, but that of another?”
“Nightmare’s,” Red said. “The one you borrowed from the stars.”
Luna looked down at the floor. “Oh,” she said in a very small voice. “That will take much work to rid me of.”
Red was silent for a moment. “No, no it won’t,” she finally said. “Just time.”
“How much time?”
“A long time. A really, really long time.”
Red closed her eyes. “Oh, with our best estimate, you probably won’t even notice how long it takes because alicorns are pretty much ageless, and-”
Red winced. “A thousand years. Give or take a few decades.”
Luna’s mouth hung open. “A... a thousand years? But then, all of you will be...”
“Once we get everything set up and running, we’re going to turn it to autonomous. It’ll have to run by itself,” Red said. “I’m sorry, Princess. It’s the only solution we could find that would drain as little as possible of your own magic while still eroding Nightmare’s. Your sister made a lullaby for your ponies to sing to you every night, and that’ll keep Nightmare on the defensive or from trying to take you over again.” She looked down at the ground. “You’ll just have to...”
“...bide my time,” Luna said. She hung her head. “I understand that you all cannot stay with me, nor would I ask you to. But... to be all alone again, for so long...”
Red gave Luna a sad smile. “Hey, you don’t have to ask. I’ll stay here with you, as long as they keep sending me food once in a while.”
“You will?” Luna looked hopeful, but then immediately looked sad again. “So I would have the dubious privilege of watching my only friend grow old and die before my eyes, in mere decades of the thousand years...”
“Red is not your only friend, if you recall,” Lightheart said, “and no, you will not be alone, Princess.” The unicorn entered the dome, pushing a strange cart bearing a stranger apparatus made up of glass balls and silver spires and wires. “I made a special plan for this, after we discovered we had no safe alternatives.”
“Oh?” Red said, looking up at the cream-colored unicorn, then switching her curious gaze to the shiny contraption. “What is this beautiful little gizmo? Something I don’t know about?”
Lightheart snorted. “Yes of course it is something you don’t know about. You have a tendency to ‘test’ things that already work properly.”
“Oh, boo,” Red said. “Not even going to give me a hint?”
Lightheart shook his head. “Not for a million bits. Now, go on, Red. Catapult needs help with the pre-launch preparations.”
Red grumbled, but stood up straight and shook herself. “All right. Give me a shout when you’re all ready to go.”
Lightheart nodded, and Red left. It was time to send everypony home. There was a certain bounce in Red’s step as she left Containment, and a smile on her face. Finally, they’d solved every problem, and she’d be able to keep Luna company, for at least a few years of her medical exile. Things could only go up from here. And up they went, too, because there was Starcross waiting for her just inside the doors to the launchpad!
The smile faded when she felt the prick of a needle on her flank.
“Yeeow!” she yelped and shied away from Starcross. “What the heck was that for, motion sickness or something? I don’t get motion sick from rockets, just boats!”
Starcross looked sad. Red couldn’t figure out why, not with so many clouds in her brain. Wait, clouds?
“I’m sorry, Red Button,” Starcross said. “Doctor Lightheart’s orders.”
“Lightheart?” Red swayed on her hooves. “What... why would he...”
Starcross waved at Cloudskipper and Skyline, gesturing them to come over from the other side of the launch pad. “He didn’t want you throwing away your life up here on the moon. You’ve got a life to live, in Equestria, not here.”
“No!” Red stomped a hoof, and the silly appendage slipped right out from under her. She collapsed to the metal plating. What a silly thing gravity was. Red giggled. She was a silly pony. “No, I wanna... I wanna stay here...”
She couldn’t fight it. Everything was squishy and funny and suddenly a lot darker. Then it wasn’t anything at all.
* * *
Luna watched Lightheart intently as the pale unicorn donned a piece of headgear that looked like the helmet she herself wore as the Nightmare. There was one obvious difference: clusters of wires sprouted from around the hole that his horn protruded from. That, and the wires were attached to a series of gold plates, diamonds, sapphires, and faintly glowing glass spheres resting on the breastplate of what could be nothing but ornamental armor. Luna smirked. Only Celestia wore such impractical armor. But Lightheart wore this suit now, practicality notwithstanding.
Luna’s ears perked forward as she heard a roar and a rumble from far away. She looked up through the glass of the roof, and saw a slim silver tube, blazing away with fire at its base, leaping toward the starry night sky.
“What... is that?” Luna asked. She’d never seen its like.
Lightheart didn’t look up. “The last rocket home,” he said, “bearing those ponies with lives to live on the world below.”
Luna gasped. “But Red Button said she-”
“Red Button is a foal,” Lightheart said. He sounded sad, not angry. “She has far more to offer the world than an old, tired unicorn like myself does.”
The injector made a clanking sound and then hummed as the gemstones in its front flickered to life.
“Then you intend to... what?” Luna said. “Keep me company for the next thousand years? How exactly do you intend to do that?”
“Oh, I intend nothing of the sort,” Lightheart said. He secured the helmet, and with a hiss of steam, it latched itself to his horn. He winced. “The goddess of the night should have only pleasant dreams. I will remain here to ensure that is the case.”
“Remain?” Luna stopped. She was no stranger to self-sacrifice. “You mean, you’re staying here? No!” She stomped a hoof. “I will not allow it.”
“As your doctor,” Lightheart said, “I must insist. Should you have even one nightmare, a moment of weakness, then the Nightmare may take that opportunity to strike. Our serum is strong, but not strong enough to counteract your divine magic. If it got out of control...”
Luna nodded. “I understand. So you will monitor my dreams. Doing the duty of the machine I... we... smashed earlier.”
“With the added benefit of being able to correct their course should they veer into the dark,” Lightheart added. “Celestia herself unbound a portion of Equestria’s natural magic and channeled it here so that we need not fear running out of energy before you are cured. No matter how long it takes.”
“Unbound the magic?” Luna said. “I would not have expected her to do such a thing. Even a few acres...”
“A whole forest, actually,” Lightheart said wryly. “The one that surrounds the ruins of the City of Trees and your old palace. Celestia has never been one to do things on a small scale.”
Luna blinked, and then smiled too. “Well, while I am locked away for a thousand years here, at least a small piece of the world shall remain forever free in my memory.”
“Funny,” Lightheart said, flipping a switch, “Celestia said almost exactly the same thing.”
The lights around them dimmed. Luna looked around Containment. All of the lights and the machines around the room began shutting down. Environmental controls, airflow, monitoring equipment, and even the motors of the contaiment dome itself quieted and faded to silence and darkness. All that was left was a single pool of light around the alicorn and unicorn.
“Then this is goodbye?” Luna said.
Lightheart smiled. “No” he said, and touched his horn to Luna’s. “It’s the beginning of a thousand years of friendship.”
Epilogue: One Thousand Years Later
A rumble shook the entire moon. Then a second, a third, a fourth. Shattered glass fell around the prone body of Princess Luna. Containment ripped asunder like a slashed curtain. Air rushed out, and the brilliance of the sun flooded in.
Luna woke up, and blinked against the glare. Then she gasped.
Four brilliant lights, in what she imagined were more or less the shape of ponies, stood in the absolute wreckage of what had once been Containment. The domes were broken, the machinery lay in twisted piles of scrap, and the last gasps of air whistled away into the barren lunar landscape. Luna stood, or tried to, and collapsed. In shock, she realized that she was not only horrifically atrophied, but also less than a quarter of her customary size. In fact, she was barely larger than a filly.
So surprised, one of the glowing ponies said. It flapped its wings, somehow without disturbing the dust. Its voice sounded like the subtle noise bells made when lifted by telekinesis. She does not realize what has happened. How drained she has become.
The ponies were not normal, no, not by any definition of ‘normal.’ They were brilliant shapes of ponies with no eyes, mouths, or any other discerning features, save that one had a horn and one had wings. They were all iridescent, and the longer she looked at them, the harder it was to look away from all the scintillating colors contained within their radiance.
“Who... who are you?” Luna said, and was surprised by the pitch and timbre of her own voice. She even sounded like a much, much younger version of herself. “What do you want?”
The glowing ponies looked back and forth between each other. Luna could hear something at the very edges of her mind, like static, or the sound of erasing a chalkboard.
The largest of the ponies spoke. Or more correctly, Luna heard them, without seeing any movement of lips, or even hearing any sounds other than the last wisps of breathable air escaping from the fragments of Containment.
It has been so long that she does not remember. The shimmering horned figure scraped at the dusty metal flooring, its voice the subtlety of a spring breeze across a dormant pipe organ. We aided you once, at your behest. As for what we want? What we want is what you want, of course. As it ever was and always shall be.
The stars? Luna glared at the creatures with a mixture of fear and loathing. “It was foalish of us to trust you once. We shall not make the same mistake twice.”
Even if you can never leave the moon? The winged figure gestured with a hoof at the wreckage of Containment. The gentle bells laughed a sad laugh.
The dust was still settling through the thin and dissipating air, and had coated almost everything in the same silty white-gray of the lunar surface. From the planet below, Luna thought, it must have looked like the facility had been wiped clean off the face of the moon.
The smaller of the two glowing earth ponies took a few steps toward Luna. Your magic is no longer strong enough to take you home, it informed her in tones of a buzzing insect trapped in cotton. The small amount you have left will sustain you... what, perhaps a week or two more before your short existence burns out entirely? If you are so lucky. We are all of us ageless, but none of us immortal. Not you, not I, not your sister.
“Tia...” Luna looked up at the blue and green planet, so far above and below, so full of life, and so unreachable. She knew the stars were right. She could barely stand upright. She was wobbly on her legs like a newborn foal, and her magic was so weak she felt like she could barely lift a moon rock. The serum... they had said it would drain as little of her own magic as possible, but this? This was-
She misses her sister, the winged figure observed. Much as we miss Oscuratus Centauri.
Luna balked. “You mean another star?”
The largest star nodded. Again, the erasing of a chalkboard. Our sister. One of the dark stars. So strong was she, so powerful, that her own light could not escape her power. None saw nor acknowledged her might. And so she sought one who understood the darkness, and what it is like to never have others see your glory, and always find yourself overshadowed by those with lesser strength.
And you and the unicorn have murdered her, the smallest buzzed. It gestured behind Luna.
Luna turned and stopped dead in her tracks. The skeleton of a unicorn, horn still connected to a series of smashed glass balls and burnt diamonds, lay near her hooves.
“Lightheart...” Luna gently scooped the bones together. He must have passed away centuries and centuries ago, but his magic had kept her sleep calm, often dreamless, but sometimes filled with pleasant memories of the world they’d left behind. Whatever spell he had been using had used up every last ounce of him, down to his very bones. Luna shivered, in part from the numbing cold of the unshielded lunar surface, and partly from considering what the old unicorn had done.
He did his work well. All too well. The pipe organ joined the bells in their sadness. In killing Oscurati, he has killed you as well. Unless...
Chalkboard lowered its head to look down at Luna. Unless you ask for our help one more time.
One last time.
All you have to do is ask.
Even if you will never see your world again, and will expire here, unacknowledged, unsung, and unloved?
“And unforgotten.” Luna struggled to her hooves and stared into the radiant creature’s face, or lack thereof. “For a thousand years, a melody has been sung in our honor every night. And it may continue for another thousand once we... once I... die...” She found herself choked up. How embarrassing. She even felt like a lost filly now.
Pipes gestured with its horn to the other three, who joined it in a small herd, and they spoke among themselves. Luna focused on the lack of actual sound on the empty moon, and pushed wisps and vines of magic into and around her senses. Then, just barely, she could hear the stars again.
We will never get her back, then. Not even a fragment that may remain.
This princess is stubborn. We will have to take it from her by force.
By force? If anything does remain, by now they are practically the same creature. Tearing her soul apart looking for it would destroy what we seek.
Peace, Sirius. He is right. Oscurati gave her power. It is not power she needs now, but hope. Power has burned her, and only love will give her peace.
If you truly believe that, I will abide by your decision. But if we lose Oscurati forever, I will blame you.
Then we will see what the moon shall say to us. Bells turned around and looked at Luna. I assume that you have understood our conference?
Luna nodded. “I am all that stands between you and your sister,” she said. “And yet, you would ask me for this, despite the fact that your sister tore me from mine?”
Bells lowered its head. Yes. You asked a favor of us once, in your darkest hours. Now we ask one of you.
Luna took a deep breath, or tried to. It was not unusual for breathing to be unnecessary, but it was unusual to have nothing to breathe even when she wanted to. She looked at the four creatures from the stars, and slowly nodded. “I will accept your help to return me to my world, as long as you remove your sister from me,” she said. “I have held this bitterness in my heart far too long, and I want nothing more than to embrace my sister and beg her forgiveness.”
The stars nodded in unison.
We will do the best we can, Pipes said, but Oscurati was more powerful than any of us. Should she reawaken fully at our touch, only the purest and most potent of magic can stop her, separate her feelings from yours, and return her to us.
“Then we would not worry,” Luna said, finally getting control of her weak legs so they stopped shaking. “For if we have learned one thing in a thousand years...” She looked at the pile of bones that had been Lightheart, and smiled. “It is that one can always depend upon the magic of friendship.”
The End of the Beginning...
Special thanks to JJPyro, Jykinturah, AngelJ, and Seth Woolwine of “Fear Not the Cold” for pre-prereading this and providing some good editorial commentary.
Most Excellent cover art by Dustin Hubbell. He does really reasonable commissions! Check out some of his other ponified stuff at http://naivewolfjosh.deviantart.com
Thanks to Kkat for writing “Fallout: Equestria,” the story that changed my mind on how much I hated fanfiction.
Random thanks to Flamequill and an Anon for catching typos that even the prereaders missed.
And thanks to you for reading my first stab at writing fanfiction myself. Confound these ponies, they drive me to fanfiction.
If you’d like to check out my full-length, original works of pun-tastic satirical fantasy fiction, you can find them on Amazon or at Marcher Lord Press (which oddly enough has the same 3 letter abbreviation as My Little Pony):
Available in paperback or Kindle editions.
Once again, thanks for reading!