FOREWORD: These stories are set in the Ponies After People universe created by Starscribe. If you have not read them, the premise of the series is that real magic has burst into our universe. Unfortunately it is lethal to humans. However, Princess Celestia, while indulging in looking into nearby universes, has foreseen this event happening. However, even with the help of all the other alicorns and strongest magic-users, they do not have sufficient time to devise a means of protecting humans, and so resort to a drastic alternative - turning every human into a magic-compatible species. That means ponies, griffons, zebras, dragons, and other Equestrian species. While this is effective, Earth cannot deal with its entire human population suddenly turned into other species all at once, especially when those former humans have no idea whatsoever how to use their new bodies, or the magic potential they now posses, so the vast majority of the population is hurled forward into time to come out at random moments for centuries to come, leaving the remainder to try to rebuild civilisation.
So what happens when an entire airplane full of passengers pops out of the time-stream and the pilots have no idea how to control a plane when they are small colourful ponies with hooves? Call the Aeronautical Returnee Rescue Response Squad!
Matt Hayfield stepped into the control tower of Melbourne Airport a few minutes early before the start of his shift. Unlike when he did so over thirty-two hundred years earlier, he did so now on four hooves. He’d had several years getting used to being an earth pony, but he had been extremely grateful that he was able to get work at his vocation of air traffic controller once more. Of course, many other things had changed in the interim while he was in the limbo of the time spell that had sent him and most of the population forward in time to reappear at random times in the future, reincarnated as ponies of various types, or zebras, griffons, or even stranger species. Once he had been rehabilitated to deal with his new body, he had been eager to stop being a burden and make the most of his new life. However, air traffic control was nowhere near as sophisticated as it had been at the point when the human race ceased to exist on the planet.
Matt greeted the controller on duty before he went over to the window to look over the airfield. The tower was considerably smaller than the one that had originally stood at this airport, but that had long since crumbled into ruin. In fact, he learned that the entire airport had fallen into disuse due to the loss of technology and infrastructure to run it since the Event, and the moldering ruins could still be seen from his vantage point. However, the sturdy runways had survived better, and had been reclaimed centuries later when ponies at last reclaimed powered flight.
Looking at the modern equivalent of aircraft, Matt had to chuckle. Despite the firsthand (or was that firsthoof) accounts that returnees like himself would give, few ponies would believe the descriptions of the behemoths that flew people around the world. As far as they were concerned, jumbo jets were just a product of his fevered imagination. Who could blame them though? Aircraft technology had scarcely progressed beyond the propeller driven single-winged vehicles that could carry a couple of dozen passengers. The need for air traffic controllers barely existed, and might not even be particularly vital except for one important fact – people were still returning out of the time-stream, and they were often doing so in bigger and bigger groups. And there were few larger groups than that of a plane full of passengers.
Gazing about the airfield, he watched a groundskeeper mowing the grass surrounding the runway. A few hundred meters to his right, the tiny airport terminal was showing signs of activity as an aircraft was prepared for departure – probably an urgent freight run up to Coolangatta if he identified the plane correctly without binoculars. There was not a passenger flight scheduled for this early in the morning, so he would not have much to do as yet. That thought was shattered when the radio suddenly interrupted it.
“Mayday! Mayday! This is Flight QF94 inbound to Melbourne requesting urgent assistance! Over.”
The voice was female and shaky. Matt knew instantly what it meant, and he sympathized with her as he trotted over to his co-worker who pulled over a microphone and toggled its switch.
“This is Melbourne air traffic control tower – we hear you, QF94. Please state the nature of your emergency. Over.”
There was a hesitation before a reply came. “Melbourne tower – the entire crew has been… incapacitated. I am barely able to operate the radio. We… we can’t handle the controls because of… our current condition. Over.”
The poor pilot was obviously trying to phrase things in a way that didn’t make her sound crazy, and Matt could hardly blame her. “Let her off the hook, Silver,” he told the other pony.
Silver Wings nodded and toggled the microphone again. “QF94, we believe you are victims of transformation and you are now ponies or some other creature. Please confirm. Over.”
The reply was prompt this time, and the voice was incredulous. “How did you know? Over.”
“Let’s just say that you aren’t the first, QF94. Lucky for you, we have procedures in place for this eventuality. Over.”
“Not the first? Procedures for this? How can there possibly be a procedure for this that I’ve never heard of before? It’s the kind of thing that’s a bit hard to cover up! Over.”
“I hate to tell you this, but Flight QF94 lasted a wee bit longer than fifteen hours. Over.”
“Longer? How much longer? Over.” The pilot was definitely suspicious.
“You’re over thirty-two centuries late, QF94. Fortunately for you, your pay won’t be docked. First of all though, we need to get you down safely. Over.”
There was a long silence before another reply came. “Melbourne Tower – if I wasn’t teal-colored pony right now, and the Captain some kind of dog-thing, I would think you were nuts. As it is, I’m inclined to believe anything that will help me deal with our current problem. What do you want me to do? Over.”
Silver nodded in satisfaction. The pilot was keeping her cool, and that was going to make things a lot easier. “QF94 – I assume that your autopilot is still in control of the aircraft? Over.”
“That’s affirmative, Melbourne Tower. That won’t help us much to land this bird safely though. Over.”
“It won’t have to, QF94. As I said, we have a procedure for this. The Aeronautical Returnee Rescue Response Squad will deal with this situation. Just hang in there until they arrive. Over.”
“Arrive? How the hell are they going to get on this airship? Over.”
“Magic. How else? Over.”
There was a long pause before the radio came to life once more. “You have got to be kidding….”
Silver turned to Matt and said, “And it sounds like she’s just hit her credibility wall. Any word from the A.R.R.R. yet?”
Matt had hit the alarm as soon as Silver had confirmed that they had a returnee situation on their hooves. “Not yet–” He was interrupted by the phone ringing. “Speak of the devil, I bet you this is them.” He picked up the phone. “Melbourne Air Traffic Control, Matt speaking.” … “Yeah, we have a big one for you. It’s an A380 inbound from Los Angeles. The flight has finally arrived.” … “Okay, we’ll be expecting your team soon. Seeya.”
Matt hung up the phone onto the receiver and turned to Silver. “They reckon they’ll be here in about ten minutes. I’ll head down to the office to meet them. Are you going to be alright? I know your shift has ended.”
Silver grinned. “This is the most excitement this place has had in a while. I’m not leaving until this is over!”
Matt returned the grin. “Better get back to our poor pilot and keep her mind off her problem.”
“Yep.” Silver agreed. Toggling the microphone, he said, “QF94, the rescue squad is on its way. We anticipate help will be there in less than half an hour. Meanwhile, tell me a little about yourself. Have you got wings or a horn? Over.”
The last thing Matt heard before the door closed behind him was, “Holy shit! I’m a unicorn!”
Matt chuckled a little and muttered, “Lucky bastard!”
He made his way down the stairs to the offices at the base. This early in the morning, not even the office assistant had arrived as yet, and he waited by himself in the operations office before the A.R.R.R. squad appeared. Literally appeared. One moment he was alone, and the next there was a soft bang with a rush of displaced air, and a crowd of mixed ponies plus a couple of griffons teleported in. They were all wearing a distinctive jacket with an emblem and A.R.R.R. sewn on the left. A green-coated unicorn stallion stepped up to Matt and gave him a hoofbump.
“It’s been a while, hasn’t it, Hayfield?”
Matt nodded. “Yeah, Machspeed, but it’s a biggie, so that should make up for it.” He gave the rest of the crew a cheery wave. “Welcome back, guys.”
The orange unicorn mare that was beside Machspeed spoke up. “So it’s true – we’ve got one of the A380s this time?”
Matt could hear the excitement in her voice. “Yes, Flashpoint. You have an easy target this time.”
“Let’s get a bead on her then,” she replied.
“Come on up with me. We should have it on our radar by now, I hope. I wish we had the equipment that I used back before the Event, but we make do.”
Machspeed said, “You complain about the equipment every time we come.”
“And you bemoan the state of aircraft every time also,” Matt replied with a smirk.
“Heh! Yeah. Hopefully we’ll develop something better eventually,” Machspeed replied as he and Flashpoint followed Matt up to the tower.
“… so you can kiss goodbye to the Sunday roast lamb. Over.” Silver was saying as they entered the control room.
“Aw, crap! Shoot me now! Over.”
Matt said, “Sounds like you’ve gotten her in a much more positive state of mind, Silver.”
The pegasus nodded. “She’s responding better than most. Glad to see the squad has arrived though. Amelia said she didn’t like the sound of some of the things that she could hear outside of the cockpit.”
“First Class passengers panic just as bad as Economy Class in this situation,” Machspeed commented.
“Have you got the plane on radar yet?” Flashpoint asked.
“Yep, although barely. Have a look for yourself.” Silver shifted over to let Flashpoint get a good look at the screen.
The mare checked its position and compared it to a map that she had brought with her. She then closed her eyes and concentrated, her horn glowing violet. After half a minute, she said, “Got it!”
Machspeed said, “Right, let’s go then. Hayfield, warn them that we’re on our way.” The two unicorns then headed back downstairs.
Matt nodded to Silver who picked up the microphone. “Hey, Amelia, expect some visitors in a minute. Machspeed is the name of the squad’s boss, so please give him your cooperation. No need to do anything more; just let them do their jobs. Over.”
“If they can get us out of this mess, Silver, I’ll give this Mach Speed guy a great big kiss! Over.”
Silver chuckled and replied, “I would not advise that. His wife might object a little, and she’s there with him. Over.”
“I’ll take that under advisement, Silver. Maybe save the kiss for you instead. Over.”
“Best offer I’ve had all month, Amelia. Out for now.”
The key to the A.R.R.R.’s ability to pull off aerial rescues came down to Flashpoint. The unicorn mare’s special talent was teleportation, excelling in range, power and accuracy. While remarkably ordinary in other unicorn abilities, she was probably the best at what she could do. Machspeed had approached her when she was merely using her ability for a courier business, and presented her with the concept of a new career that would not only save lives, but could also prove very lucrative. Intrigued, she took a chance and they teamed up, performing their first airborne rescue just three weeks later. Since then, their successes had led to fame which let them deal with the authorities on an effective basis. Therefore they had all the time they needed to organize themselves for this rescue.
The rescue team teleported onto the lower deck of the A380, spread out from the First Class compartment which was just behind the cockpit, and down the corridor. Critical to Flashpoint’s uncanny ability was not materializing anywhere there was an obstruction, which usually consisted of panicky ponies and other species filling the walkways. The team obviously caused a further stir by their sudden appearance, and a couple of them immediately set to work sorting out the mess and calming people down, even as most of the rest started to disperse throughout the rest of the airplane to do the same thing. Pegasi members flew over the heads of passengers, avoiding the blocked corridors, making the best speed to the more distant sections of the enormous aircraft, while unicorns levitated others into seats, or even restrained some whose sanity had been pushed a little too far. They also had two earth ponies on the team to provide muscle, but both of them had strong, loud, and confident voices which they used to great effect to impose a semblance of order amidst the chaos.
While the majority of the team went about their assigned tasks, Machspeed headed to the cockpit. The door was locked, of course, but a simple spell took care of that, and he entered the cockpit. The first thing he saw was a diamond dog in the captain’s seat. The unfortunate pilot had become one of the larger ham-fisted ones, and had burst out of his uniform. Worse still, he was jammed tightly into his chair, almost hopelessly restricted. Judging by the looks Machspeed got, he had not coped well with the situation, and seemed to be nearly catatonic. Looking to his right though, he saw an attractive teal-colored unicorn mare with a mauve mane staring back at him.
“How did you get in here?” she asked nervously.
“Relax, Ma’am, I’m part of the rescue team you’ve been expecting. Call me Machspeed, and I believe your name is Amelia?”
She nodded. “That’s me. The question still applies though. How on Earth did you get up here and through the locked door without breaking it down?”
“For the first – precision teleportation. For the second – a neat little magic spell that I learned especially for these situations.”
“That’s the second time that I’ve been told it’s magic, and I still find it hard to swallow.”
“You’re a unicorn, your captain is a diamond dog, and the year is 3234 A.E. – what do you find so hard to believe?”
Amelia deflated a little. “Good point. So, are all the rest of the passengers unicorns and dogs too?”
“Nope. Some are pegasi, earth ponies, griffons, and even stranger species. It’s a real menagerie up here!” Machspeed replied with a grin meant to put her at ease.
“Right….” Amelia took a moment to let that sink in. “What happens now? I’m not much use with these.” She waved her hooves helplessly in the air.
“You’d be surprised what they can do, but we don’t have time for lessons. I’d like to keep you here though, so the first step is to get the captain extricated from his chair and out of the way.” He turned to call back down the passage. “Flash! I could do with a helping horn here!”
Flashpoint quickly joined him. “What’s up, hon? Whoa! He’s really jammed in there, isn’t he?”
“Yep. I reckon it’ll take the two of us to worm him out. If you can try forcing the chair’s arms apart, I’ll lift him out.”
They got to work, and Amelia watched in fascination as their horns lit up – his with a violet glow and hers with a light green, and matching glows surrounded the captain and the chair. With a creak of stressed materials, the chair’s grip on the diamond dog eased, and he was lifted out of it. Machspeed floated him down the corridor and placed him in the care of one of the team members before returning. He then began to take the captain’s position at the controls.
Amelia looked at him worriedly. “Um… not meaning to look a gift horse in the mouth… oh God, I don’t believe I said that. Anyway, are you qualified to fly this airplane?”
Machspeed gave her his most confident grin. “I used to be a human too. I flew jet fighters in the Royal Australian Air Force, and when I retired from the military, I took a job as a commercial pilot. I’ve trained on practically every one of the big passenger aircraft, and that includes the A380. I’m one of the few ponies in the world now who is qualified and experienced with many of the pre-Event aircraft, so you can relax – you’re in safe hooves.”
Machspeed put on the radio headset that fitted awkwardly about his pony ears. “Melbourne Tower, this is flight QF94. Come in, please. Over.”
The reply was prompt. “This is Melbourne Tower. Have you things under control, Machspeed? Over.”
“That’s an affirmative, Melbourne Tower. Systems look okay, and the rest of the team is currently working their way through the passenger situation. Over.”
“Good to hear, QF94. Ground crew has started preparing for your arrival. The one flight leaving here this morning is just taking off, so the airspace will be completely clear for you by the time that you get here. Standard approach on Runway 34. Over.”
“Acknowledged, Melbourne Tower. Over and out.”
“That wasn’t exactly standard procedure,” Amelia commented.
“Standard procedure ceased to exist thirty two centuries ago. You’re lucky that we even have somewhere suitable for landing this thing on. Fortunately, runways designed to support a fully loaded and fueled A380 weighing up to 575 tonnes are rather durable, and they were able to be salvaged and re-used even after all this time.”
Amelia shuddered. “I can’t wrap my head around that. What about my family and friends? Will I ever see them?”
“I’m sorry, but unless any of them are on this plane, you’re extremely unlikely to ever see them again. That’s true for everyone else on board this airplane.”
“Yeah. I missed my friends and my brother. Parents were already dead. No wife though, so when I met Flashpoint and we fell in love, at least I didn’t have a guilty conscience when we got married.”
“Was she a human once also?”
“Nope. She was born a pony in this time. Humans are practically a myth to ponies like her, but as long as Returnees keep popping out of thin air, our old species won’t be totally forgotten.”
Amelia considered that for a long moment. “So… you married a pony?”
“Yes, and we’ve had a foal too – a cute filly.” He grinned at her. “You get used to being a pony, or you go nuts. It might take a while, but you should get comfortable in your new body eventually. While I still miss my hands occasionally, this horn makes a mighty handy substitute. Yours will too when you learn how to use it. And as I said before, these hooves can do a lot more than you might credit.” Machspeed demonstrated their astounding agility.
“How’s that even possible?” Amelia asked even as she tried to imitate him.
“Don’t worry – you’ll learn.”
“Silver said that you would explain how this all happened.”
Machspeed nodded. “We will, but it’s a rather long story which I’ll save for later. Short version – real magic came into our universe, but it was incompatible with humans and killed them horribly. However, powerful beings from a nearby universe foresaw this and tried to help. They couldn’t find a solution in time, so instead they used a mega-spell that changed us into magic-compatible species as found on their world. However, Earth could not cope with the entire population being changed simultaneously, so the majority were shoved into the time stream and have been randomly popping out ever since. The bigger the number though, the later they arrive. That’s why it’s taken over three thousand years for this airplane to return.”
“If the short version makes my head hurt this much, I don’t think I’m going to enjoy the long version,” Amelia said with a sigh.
“Cheer up – you could have returned before any means to rescue you existed, or adequate infrastructure to deal with it. Believe me, there had been plenty of tragic plane crashes before I organized the A-Triple-R Squad. Now, thanks to Flashpoint’s amazing teleportation skills, we travel worldwide and rescue a lot of them.”
“A lot, but not all?”
Machspeed lost his confident grin and shook his head. “Sometimes we can’t react in time, and sometimes we’re just not welcome.”
Amelia looked aghast. “You mean, despite all this,” she said as she waved her hooves all-encompassingly, “People still can’t get along?”
“The more things change, the more they stay the same. Used to be a lot worse. Can’t say that it won’t go bad again either.”
In the quiet lull, Flashpoint returned to the cockpit. “How are things up here?” she asked.
“Everything is smooth here, Love. How about back there?”
“The usual – calmed down most; restrained a few. It took a while because this is one enormous airplane.”
“First time on an A380?” Amelia asked.
Flashpoint nodded. “Still amazes me how these things can fly.”
“This from a magic-using unicorn,” Amelia said drolly.
Flashpoint shared an understanding smile with her before turning back to Machspeed. “We had one hitch – we’ve got a changeling.”
Machspeed winced. “Did you isolate her in one of the toilets?”
“Why did you need to do that?” Amelia asked.
Flashpoint replied, “Her species is rather frightening, and they’re very sensitive to hostile emotions. It’s best for both her and the other passengers.”
Amelia looked at Machspeed. “You said ‘her’ without being told. Why?”
“You’re observant. It’s because they’re always female, even if the human used to be male. Just what this world needs – another changeling queen.”
“I feel sorry for her, but it’s hardly her fault,” Flashpoint pointed out.
“It doesn’t make things any easier for anyone though, does it?”
“No. Well, I’m going to go make another lap of the plane. See you in a week.”
“Don’t forget the trail rations,” Machspeed said with a smile.
As Flashpoint left, Machspeed said to Amelia, “Okay, time for us to get busy.”
“What can I do?” she asked, waving her hooves again.
“You’ve remained remarkably calm and level-headed despite this extraordinary situation, so don’t think you’re helpless. You can still be a lot of help to me, especially reading off the checklists. We have enough safety margin that we don’t have to land this bird on the first try, but I reckon that we should be able to do it together. Are you game?”
Amelia smiled with a bit more confidence. “Yes, Captain.”
“Great! Let’s get to work.”
Amelia surprised herself with how much that she was able to do with only the occasional telekinetic help from Machspeed. It was not long before they had the runway in sight, but they were ready.
“Melbourne Tower, this is Flight QF94 on final approach. Over.”
“QF94, you are cleared for landing. Good luck, Machspeed. Over.”
“Thanks, Melbourne Tower. Over and out.”
Despite the reassurances, Amelia was more nervous upon landing than she had been for a very long time, but Machspeed managed a near-perfect landing despite the lack of sophisticated equipment on the ground to assist him. She let out the breath that she had not realized that she had been holding and started looking around as they turned off the runaway and taxied towards a small building.
“Where’s the terminal?” she asked in puzzlement.
“Over there,” Machspeed replied, pointing with a hoof towards the building.
Amelia’s eyebrows rose is surprise. “That is the terminal? It’s scarcely bigger than this plane!”
“It’s a different world, Amelia. Regular air traffic refers to pegasi, not powered craft, at least not yet. This airport is scheduled to be expanded soon, but that small building has coped well enough up until now.”
“What happened to the old terminal?”
“Not much survives after three thousand years. Much of it has been salvaged for raw materials, especially the steel. The rest has just moldered away for ages. You can see what remains over there.” He pointed once more before he slowed the plane and made a final slow turn in towards the terminal where a pony was waving red flags, and finally came to a stop.
The flag-waving pony dragged some wheel chocks under the plane out of sight. Moments later, she came back, spread her wings and fluttered up to the cockpit window and looked inside. Machspeed gave her a sign and she nodded in satisfaction before flying away.
Amelia gaped in awe. “That… that pony can fly! You weren’t kidding about pegasus ponies, were you? How can they fly with such small wings? How can they fly at all?”
Machspeed started to answer, but Amelia held up a hoof to forestall him.
“I know – magic, right? I think I might already be envious of them.”
Machspeed laughed. “I know exactly what you mean. I still occasionally wish I’d become a pegasus, but I think I wouldn’t be able to pilot one of these babies if I didn’t have telekinesis to help me. You don’t know how much I missed flying before I saw the need and formed this squad. Anyway, our job isn’t finished yet. We have passengers to unload, and some rather disturbing news to tell them. It’s going to take a while. There aren’t any air-bridges here, and very few of these transformees are even going to be able to walk very well.”
“Amelia, you’re a four-legged equine now. Only acrobatic ponies can walk on two legs with any competence. Get out of your chair, plant your hooves on the deck, and give it a try.”
Amelia poked ineffectually at her seat belt with her hooves before saying, "A little help here, please?"
A touch of telekinesis from Machspeed unlatched the seat belt, and Amelia awkwardly did as she was instructed, although her now ill-fitting uniform hindered her a lot. She wobbled on her legs as she took a couple of tentative steps.
“Pretend you’re crawling like a human. That’s about the best way to get used to being on four legs and then you’ll start to get the hang of walking properly. Don’t expect to be more competent than a toddler for a while though.”
“Let me practice a bit,” she replied.
“Okay,” Machspeed said before turning on the public address system. “Ladies and Gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. Welcome to Melbourne, Australia. As you have crossed over the International Date Line, you will need to set your watches forward 3,234 years, three months, and eight days. This will be your final destination. If you have connecting flights, forget it; you have missed them permanently. We will be letting you disembark as soon as possible, but we request your patience as we don’t have a air-bridge, and the first step is a doozy. Please follow the instructions of the ground crew once you have disembarked. Qantas would like to thank you for flying with them, but they haven’t existed for over thirty-two centuries, so forget about your Frequent Flyer points.”
Amelia giggled. “Thanks. I needed a laugh.”
“Things aren’t going to be easy for you for a while, Amelia. My best advice to you is to keep a positive attitude and never forget that you’re only as limited as you let yourself be. It’s not a bad time to come back to this world, so make the most of it.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.” She leaned forward and gave him a kiss on the cheek. “Thanks again.”
“You’re welcome, but don’t let my wife catch you doing that, or she might ‘accidentally’ teleport you to the moon,” he replied with a wink. “Besides, I believe there’s a pegasus in the control tower who would like to meet you.”
“You mean Silver Wings? Yeah, I’d like that. What’s with those funny names anyway? What’s your real name?”
“My real name is Machspeed. It’s a pretty good pony name, and I like it. But if you’re referring to when I was a human, it was Abraham Colburn. Abe ceased to exist when the human race disappeared though, and this pony that I am now is happy with his new life and his new name.”
“So am I expected to change my name also?”
“Only if you want to, but I like Amelia just fine, if you want my opinion.”
“Thanks, I’ve always liked it.”
“One more question…?”
“Only one?” Machspeed asked with a knowing grin. “Go ahead.”
“Do you always walk around without pants?”
The stallion burst out laughing. “Amelia, most ponies don’t wear anything at all most of the time. There are exceptions like uniforms, protective safety gear, and formal wear, but for the most part, you’ll find that you’ll be most comfortable in nothing but your lovely teal coat.”
“That’s going to take a little getting used to,” Amelia admitted.
“You don’t have to if you don’t want, but after you’ve been around naked ponies for a while, you’ll probably wonder what the big deal is about uncomfortable clothes.”
“Maybe I’ll settle for something that fits a bit better for now. I keep tripping on my pants!”
“Believe it or not, I have a solution for that.” Machspeed’s horn lit up and a wad of rubber bands lifted out of his jacket’s pocket. “Just let me roll up your cuffs and sleeves, and I’ll put on a rubber band to hold them in place for now.”
Amelia willingly cooperated, and soon she found herself badly dressed, but free to move without hindrance from her clothes. “Thanks. What happens now?”
“First I finish shutting down systems while you do the checklist, and then we disembark.”
Amelia was happy that she was not useless despite her transformation. When they were done, she followed him as best she could as he headed out of the cockpit. She was surprised to find the First Class section empty of passengers, but she could see more ponies queued up at the nearest exit. The line was moving quite slowly, so she could not see too many of them yet.
“How are people getting off if you don’t have a air-bridge? Do you actually have steps suited to an A380?”
“Nope. Come and have a look.”
Amelia staggered over as close to the exit as she could and peered around the corner. Her eyes widened in surprise as she saw passengers floating to the ground, surrounded by a glow that was conspicuous even in the sunlight. Other passengers were being carried down by pegasi wearing the same type of jacket as Machspeed. There was a unicorn at the door with the same jacket.
Machspeed explained, “My squad is also responsible for the evacuation of the aircraft. Once on the tarmac, the ground staff takes over. By now, a special squad from the city that is responsible for dealing with Returnees should be here to help you, although I imagine that getting several hundred all at once is going to strain their resources a bit.”
“I’ll bet.” Amelia just watched the slowly passing parade. She saw ponies of every imaginable color and hue, some griffins, a zebra, and two deer. “Has the changeling been taken off yet? I’m curious to see what she looks like.”
“We’ll leave her for last. She’ll need special handling.”
The unloading of all the passengers took quite a long while despite several exits being opened on both decks. The penultimate one was finally brought safely to the ground, and the squad members moved back from the doorway. After a short wait as Amelia wondered what was happening, another squad member, an earth pony mare, made her way slowly down the passageway while supporting… something.
Machspeed said softly, “Amelia, many people find changelings disturbing to look at, but remember that she was once a human being also. Control your reactions, especially your emotions.”
Amelia glanced at Machspeed. “That’s an odd request. Why my emotions?”
“Changelings feed on the energy of positive emotions, especially love, but negative emotions are harsh and can weaken them. Daisy is our most empathetic member and she’s supporting the changeling with encouragement and positive feelings, as well as helping her to walk.”
“They feed on emotions? How does that work? No, wait, don’t tell me – weird creature magic.”
“Weird magic, yes, but that's still a person,” Machspeed reminded.
Amelia nodded in acknowledgement but did not say anything because she could now comprehend some of what she was looking at, and she was stunned. With characteristics of both insects and ponies, the changeling was a bizarre sight and she barely managed to keep herself in check. She watched as they were levitated to the ground and moved off in a different direction from all the others.
“Okay,” Machspeed announced cheerfully. “Our job is done, and you’re officially off-duty, First Officer Amelia… what is your last name anyway?”
“Does it really matter now?” Amelia wondered.
“Probably not. Let’s disembark. If you’ll allow me, I’ll lift you down personally.”
“Why, thank you, Captain.”
Machspeed’s horn lit up, and Amelia felt a weird sensation of weightlessness as she floated out of the plane and down to the ground.
Flashpoint trotted up to Machspeed and said, “That pilot seems to be handling this all very well.”
The stallion nodded. “Yeah. I hope that carries forward into her new life. I quite like her.”
Flashpoint poked him in the chest with a hoof. “You are not starting a herd,” she said with a smirk.
Machspeed grinned and kissed her. “Yes, dear. Mind taking me down?”
Flashpoint nodded, and a moment later they popped out of thin air next to Amelia.
The mare jumped in surprise and nearly fell over before Machspeed steadied her. “So that’s teleportation? Handy!” She turned to gaze at the A380 for a long moment while the rest of the A.R.R.R. Squad also disembarked from both levels of the enormous aircraft. “It looks even more out of place from this viewpoint. What happens to it now?”
“She’s flown her last. We haven’t got the resources or the infrastructure to utilize or maintain her. We’ll gut her for the valuable electronics and other equipment that can be repurposed, and sell whatever is left over for scrap. We should all make a lot of money out of this job.”
Amelia looked at Machspeed in dismay. “You mean you’re only in this for the money?”
Instead of answering her, the stallion started to gesticulate to his other crewmembers to come over and join him while saying, “Hey, guys! Let’s show Amelia our motto.”
The crew gathered with suspicious smiles on their faces. Some reared up to put their forelegs around the shoulders of the persons beside them, and they all leered at her and gave her fierce grins. Machspeed counted down when they seemed ready.
“Three, two, one …”
“ARRRRRRRR!” they all chorused.
Amelia blinked as she recognized the parody. “You’re pirates?!” she exclaimed.
The group broke up laughing, and Machspeed came back over to rejoin her.
“No, not really. That’s just our little joke based on the initials of the squad. We’re a private operation not funded by any government, so we make money by salvaging the aircraft that we rescue. Lives get saved, and we get to make a good living. Everybody wins.”
Amelia nodded thoughtfully. “And you get to fly again.”
“And I get to fly,” Machspeed agreed happily.
“It can’t last forever, you know?”
“I know, but there are still thousands of flights not accounted for, so I don’t think we need to worry about that for a long while.”
“You got lucky, didn’t you?”
He nodded. “Yeah, but sometimes you make your own luck. Remember that over the coming months, Amelia. Now you had better join the others inside. As soon as everypony is gathered, they’ll begin your orientation. You’ve got a lot to learn about your new world.”
“Everypony?” Amelia repeated.
Machspeed grinned. “Just one of the things you’re going to get used to. Welcome to the future of humanity – it’s got ponies!”
Machspeed sat at his desk, reluctantly dealing with the inevitable paperwork. The entire Aeronautical Returnee Rescue Response Squad operated out of a very modest office located on the coast north of the former city of Brisbane. There were frequently long gaps between rescue operations, and this location had always been idyllic before the Event, and it still was now that ponies dominated the population, so many days were just spent either swimming, lazing in the sun, or indulging in the many varied forms of entertainment available in the area. However, as boss of the organization, he still had to occasionally sit down in his office and deal with the bureaucracy.
“Hey, Mach! Someone here to see you!” the office manager called out.
“Send them in,” he replied.
A moment later, a unicorn mare stepped into his office – one with a familiar teal-colored coat and mauve mane. She gave him a happy smile.
“Hello, Machspeed. It’s good to see you again at last.”
Machspeed’s memory was suddenly jolted back nearly two years. “Amelia! It’s still Amelia, I hope? What brings you here?”
Amelia trotted confidently over to his desk and made herself comfortable on the chair there, showing no signs whatsoever that she had not always possessed four legs.
“I hear that your business has been growing lately. Need another pilot? This unicorn wants to fly!”
Machspeed’s smile grew into a broad grin. “Maybe. Do you remember our motto?”
Amelia squinted and grimaced, and fiercely growled, “ARRRRRRRRR!”
The stallion laughed and said, “Welcome to the A-Triple-R Squad, Captain Amelia!”
The A.R.R.R. Squad members were in Machspeed’s office, finishing the debriefing of the latest aircraft rescue which Amelia had captained for the first time, leaving Machspeed in the back-up role and dealing with the passengers. Every rescue was different and had its challenges and odd situations, but one particular passenger had stood out.
“…and not only did she demand a refund, but she also insisted on getting a free upgrade for the next leg of her travels because of her suffering and inconvenience!” Machspeed told them with his forelegs spread in incomprehension.
“Seriously?” Amelia replied. “The fact that she and everyone else had been transformed into a pony or something else didn’t enter into her consideration?”
Machspeed shook his head in disbelief. “It just goes to show that some people are so self-centered and have such a feeling of entitlement that they literally can’t see reality or deal with it.”
Flashpoint said, “I wish that I could say that that was the only mind-boggling thing that has happened on one of these rescues. Most of the squad has had a story to tell about passengers that they’ve dealt with.”
Featherdrop snorted and said, “You got that right, Flashpoint. Amelia – you pilots don’t have to deal with a fraction of the craziness that we do sometimes. One time I discovered a mare and a stallion jammed into one of the toilets. While the Mile High Club might work for bipeds in that cramped space, once they became quadruped ponies, suddenly there’s not enough floor space. Took us half an hour to get the door open and extricate them.”
Pounder guffawed. “At least they got to have a little fun. My favorite story is about one really messed-up person that had given the attendants hell before the Event. Apparently there was a raving feminist who objected loudly and strenuously to being seated next to a male. She demanded to have him removed, but the flight was full and they had a stressful time trying to move lots of people so that there weren’t any ‘male pigs’ around her. She refused to listen to any of the male attendants, and was browbeating the female attendants to rise up against the oppression of their male colleagues. This idiot was a living, breathing cliché of the worst of man-haters.”
“Usually that kind of person hates themselves too,” Amelia said. “So, what made that person your favorite? She had to have hated dealing with you, a stallion.”
“Karma,” Pounder replied.
Amelia’s eyes widened in realization. “You don’t mean…?”
Pounder nodded. “Male humans sometimes become mares, but it’s really rare for females to become stallions. It couldn’t have happened to a better victim.”
“She… I mean he must have gone out of his mind,” Amelia said gleefully.
“Eeyup! Like Machspeed’s passenger, he didn’t pay much attention to the fact that he was now a pony, only that he was now a pretty well-hung male. ‘What the fuck am I supposed to do with this?!’ he screamed at me while pointing at the offending member. I just grinned and told him, ‘What us stallions have been doing with it since time began, mate.’ Sometimes I wonder what happened to him later, but I know some flight attendants who were more than a little pleased that the fool got his comeuppance.”
“Anyone else got a gender-swap story?” Amelia asked eagerly.
Flashpoint raised a hoof. “One of the earliest rescues Machspeed and I did was of a private jet owned by some multi-millionaire. I later learned from his staff that this guy was the counterpart of Pounder’s passenger – a real misogynist. He had an all-female crew looking after his every whim, and pretty much treated them like property. The only reason that they stayed with the job for any time was the amount of money he threw around. Eventually disgust made most of them quit.”
“So he became a mare? Nice.”
“Nope,” Flashpoint said with a smirk.
“Huh? What then?” Amelia asked with one eyebrow cocked curiously.
“He became a diamond dog bitch.”
“What? Like the captain on the flight I was co-piloting during the Event?”
“Yes, except female. They’re smaller than the males and have half a dozen large dugs. They also have the heat-cycle from hell. It just doesn’t quit until they’ve been plowed several times. It’s a bit of a problem for the species, but a nice bit of karma for that pig.”
“Makes me glad I ended up as a normal mare,” Amelia said gratefully. “Anything a bit less drastic?”
“Oh, sure,” Sunshower replied. “You get to listen to a lot of stories on passenger-wrangling duty, especially if it’s a plane that had just taken off when the Event happened, and Machspeed is burning off excess fuel for a few hours.”
Machspeed grinned. “Hey, I’m not just dumping fuel if I can safely fly around for a while. Keeps me in practice!”
Amelia shared a knowing smile with him. Pilots had to fly!
Sunshower continued her tale. “The flight attendants frequently like to talk to us because we seem to be calm and in control, so you hear about some interesting things. There was this couple – a burly man and a small woman. The attendants saw right away that he was the domineering, controlling type, making all the decisions for his meek wife. When the food service came around and she asked for one thing, he even told her that she had to have something else instead.”
“So what happened to him?” Amelia asked eagerly.
“It was what happened to them. He became a small stallion, but she became a very large griffoness. She must have been twice his size, and the way she eyed him all through the rest of that flight, she knew who had the upper claw now. Her aggressive griffon instincts were already kicking in and he was quivering in his hooves. Makes me wonder if they stayed together afterwards.”
“I sometimes wonder if the mega-spell that changed us has a sense of humor,” Machspeed said.
“There’s not that much justice in the universe,” Amelia replied cynically.
“I suppose not. Too depressing to think about actually, so who else has something to offer for our newest recruit’s edification?”
Sunshower said, “I just want to point out that not every gender-change case is like that.” The pegasus mare smiled happily in recollection. “There was this earth pony mare, barely older than a filly. She was crying and I tried to comfort her. It turned out that she wasn’t crying because she was sad. She used to be male but strongly identified as female. She was so happy about the sex change that she didn’t care that she had to become a pony to be female. We had a long talk about what she would do with her new life. We keep in touch, writing letters occasionally. Last I heard, she was married with a foal on the way.”
“I wish I got a passenger like that sometime.” Sunbeam spread his wings. “Instead, I had one nutcase earth pony who grabbed me by the wings and demanded to be given a pair also. He refused to believe me that I had no control over that.”
“At least he believed that they were real,” Arclight said. The unicorn stallion snorted as he recollected an incident. “Remember that charter plane that was full of football fans that were drunk out of their skulls? They were so smashed that many of them thought that they were having hallucinations and many didn’t believe that they were really transformed. They tried petting me and calling me ‘darling girl’! Do I look like a mare to you?”
Amelia snickered but did not answer that question. He was the most effeminate-looking stallion she had ever met who was nevertheless straight as they come, and he didn’t appreciate the suggestion that he was a colt-cuddler.
“Aw, you shouldn’t mind the petting,” Sunshower said. “It’s a lot better than when they freak out when you try to talk to them or get them to do anything.”
Arclight replied, “There can be too much of a good thing though. I remember one flight that had a lot of young children on it. They almost always seem to adapt very quickly, and think it’s a great game. I got stampeded by a herd of them playing chasey in the aisles!”
Machspeed chuckled. “He had dozens of little hoof-sized bruises all over him before he got his act together and magically corralled them.”
Amelia giggled at the image of the unicorn reduced to a speedbump in the aisle. “Kids are so flexible. I think in some ways this world is a lot better off getting them as Returnees because they cope with the changes better than a lot of adults.”
“Some adults never adapt,” Flashpoint said. “I recall one hypochondriac lady who refused to believe that she had a totally healthy new body, and insisted on taking her bag of medicines with her. We found out later that she died when she took a drug that is deadly to ponies. That’s one reason why it’s now the squad’s policy not to let Returnees take anything with them when they are evacuated from the aircraft. Personal possessions are returned to them after being checked for dangerous materials and equipment.”
Amelia’s face fell. “Well, that’s a downer. Anyone got something happier to tell me?”
Machspeed grinned. “Ever watch the Twilight Zone?”
“There’s a famous episode called Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.”
“Ooh, I think I know where this is going,” Amelia said with a smile.
Machspeed pointed to the griffon member of the squad. Sky-scream was large even for one of his kind, and a very powerful flyer. “Screamer here carried me to a small plane that was one of the first we ever tried rescuing. They’re too cramped to safely teleport into, so we were trying a different approach. It was travelling slow enough for him to catch up to it even while carrying me, and I used telekinesis to get into the plane. He tried to take a rest on the wing though, which made the aircraft lurch. A passenger saw him out there and screamed that there was a monster on the wing. Of course by that time Sky-scream had realized his mistake, and dropped off.”
“And nobody else saw him!” Amelia concluded with a laugh. “Just like the episode.”
Sky-scream grumpily said, “How they could mistake a magnificent griffon for a monster, I cannot comprehend!”
The crew laughed as it was well-known how vain the cat-bird was about his appearance.
“Speaking of griffons, remember the time we rescued a Boeing that was coming into Schipol Airport in the Netherlands?” Arclight asked. Several of the other ponies shuddered.
“Yeah, that’s a bit hard to forget,” Fairwind replied. “Those Returnees were mostly griffons, and half of them were looking at us ponies rather hungrily.”
“Barbarians!” Sky-scream said emphatically.
There were chuckles at their colleagues outraged sensibilities.
“You think a flock of griffons is dangerous? Try unicorn foals!” Featherdrop stated emphatically.
“Oh? Why?” Amelia asked.
“Two words – magic surges.”
Arclight nodded. “He’s right. Very young unicorns are subject to random magic surges. One punched a hole in the fuselage and Machspeed had to make a very hasty descent. And that isn’t even the worst thing that can happen.”
“Remind me not to have foals,” Amelia said with a shudder.
“Of course they can simply puke up on you, and that’s pretty disgusting when it gets in your coat. Then again, foals can break your heart too,” Flashpoint said. “I remember one three-year-old who became a thestral…”
“A what?” Amelia asked.
“A bat-pony. Cute as cute can be. Her mother became an earth pony though, and rejected the child.”
“That’s just wrong,” Amelia said with a frown.
“It happens too often, actually. Humans have their self-image badly battered by the change, and they frequently can’t cope with some aspects of their new selves. They simply don’t recognize the child as being theirs.”
“Don’t worry too much, Amelia,” Machspeed reassured the unicorn. “There are people who are trained to deal with those situations. No one gets abandoned, least of all a foal.”
“Time for something a bit lighter,” Arclight suggested. “Have you any idea what a yak looks like crammed into an Economy Class seat? I do.”
You mean to tell me that yaks are an intelligent species now too?” Amelia asked, boggled at the thought.
“Yep. You tend to get them in the central Asia area. It took both Machspeed and myself to lift him out as Pounder broke off a couple of seats.”
Pounder said, “I had more sympathy for the poor mare jammed in the window seat next to him. She was nearly smothered by the big, hairy guy.”
“Was the mare his wife?” Amelia asked.
“Maybe. We never thought to ask at the time. If she was, things would be a whole lot different for them after that.”
“Yeah, no thanks. I can’t imagine snuggling up to someone that huge and hairy. Sheesh! His clothes must have been shredded.”
“Yeah,” Arclight replied. “Most come back in smaller bodies and their clothes are practically falling off them, but the bigger species always burst out of their clothes. Not that it’s a problem for us, but it freaks out the Returnees. Heck – even though we wear the squad jackets while on a job, we’re still mostly naked. I don’t understand it, but that bothers the newbies.”
“That’s because you’re a natural-born pony,” Amelia said. “Humans have a nudity fetish, and seeing genitals prominently displayed discomforts most of them. It took me a while to get used to the idea of walking around naked.”
Arclight snorted in amusement. “Glad I was never a human.”
Featherdrop said, “At least you never had to deal with this crazy lady who took offense at seeing my goods while I was hovering over the passengers. She practically grabbed me out of the air and started ranting about how I was an offence to common decency.” The stallion shuddered. “She was facing the challenge of a new life in a new body, and all she could think of was that she didn’t like seeing my balls!”
“She tongue-lashed us mares too,” Sunshower reminded him. “I made sure to flip my tail at her as she was evacuated from the plane. She was still raving when they took her inside.”
Machspeed smirked but said, “No more aggravating the Returnees, Sunshower, okay?”
“Not unless they provoke me first, Mach.”
There was a lot of chuckles all round before Pounder said, “How about that time we went to rescue a cargo plane and discovered that they were smugglers?”
“Oooh! What were they smuggling?” Amelia asked.
“Cocaine. They wanted to fight us instead of cooperate with us. It was amusing seeing them try to use their hand guns with hooves. Then they tried assaulting me.”
“What species had they been transformed into?”
“Deer – one of the smaller breeds too. The bucks didn’t even have decent racks to use as weapons.”
Amelia giggled at the image of little deer trying to attack the burly earth stallion. She had seen him casually push aside a crate that had to weigh over a ton that had been blocking his path, and he had only used one leg. Even when he wasn’t connected to the earth from which he drew extra strength, Pounder was one of the strongest stallions that she had ever met.
“Here’s one that only Amelia might get,” Machspeed said. “Do you know what furries are?”
“Umm, aren’t they the ones who like animal people?” she replied.
“Close enough. For the benefit of the others, furries was a general term for humans that liked anthropomorphic characters. That means animals or other things that possessed human-like qualities. That mostly meant various animal species that walked on two legs and thought and spoke like humans. Some of these people created characters for themselves, or even thought of themselves as these animals.”
“Sounds pretty weird to me,” Arclight said.
“They were mostly having harmless enjoyment, but I encountered one seriously obsessive type. He was absolutely pissed off, but not because he had been transformed. No – it was because he was a pony, and he had wanted to become a wolf! He was convinced that I had something to do with their change of species, and he demanded that I fix it! I swear, if he hadn’t been still trying to find his hooves, he would have had them grabbing my jacket and shaking me until I complied!”
There was a round of laughter before Sunbeam said, “We can be grateful that most Returnees are pretty helpless at first. Their whiny complaints are bad enough. Some foals are the worst. They moan incessantly because they can’t play their games with hooves.”
Fairwind snorted derisively. “I’ll take them anytime over the religious nutcases. I’ve had more than my fair share of them ranting and raving about how their transformation is the work of Satan. I didn’t even know who Satan was the first time this stallion started preaching at me. I made the mistake of asking. I wonder if he ever shut up? He was still trying to ‘save’ me and all the rest of us when we unloaded the plane.”
“Sometimes it can leave them speechless though,” Featherdrop pointed out. There was this guy who became a mare. His religion was… umm… what was it again? Mustang?”
“Do you mean Muslim?” Amelia asked.
“Yeah, that’s it. Apparently he was extremely orthodox, and now that he was a she, the mare just could not cope with the idea. Not sure if I’m sorry for them, or thankful for karma.”
“People like that make their own hells,” Flashpoint said. “Another way doesn’t even involve religion. For example, I talked to one Returnee who said she was a Vegan. We were currently serving up what food we could because it was one of those long waits while we burned up fuel and people were getting hungry. When I put the food tray in front of her, she told me that she could not eat it because it had meat in it. She had to explain to me that Vegans did not eat meat or dairy products. I had to break it to her that griffons are obligate carnivores. If she did not have meat in her diet, she would grow sick and die. She still refused. I gave her one of the meals without meat, but I wonder if she ever relented or died for her beliefs.”
That tale put a bit of a downer on the group, and Machspeed got up, opened a cupboard, and pulled out a full bottle of liquor.
“Anyone in the mood for some genuine 2,300 year-old Scotch whisky?” he asked.
There were several takers despite the fact that the whisky had cheated on the aging process by coming through the time-stream with some Returnees. They were contemplating a second round when the phone rang. Machspeed answered it and listened intently. As the others watched, one eyebrow rose and kept rising as his expression changed to utter disbelief. “Seriously?” was all he said. Apparently it was confirmed as Machspeed just hung up the phone. He turned to the crew and said, “Guys – you’re never going to believe this one….”
Is Anybody There?
Machspeed was getting the monthly paperwork out of the way before the team meeting later that morning, when Amelia wandered through the open door of his office. Without a word, she walked up to his desk and just let her head slump down upon it. She looked up at him with dull eyes and ears drooping.
“I’m b-o-r-e-d,” she drawled.
The stallion smiled in sympathy. “I know it’s been over a month since our last rescue, but that’s the nature of the business – sometimes we get several in a week, and then there are lulls like this.”
“Still bored,” Amelia replied apathetically.
“At least you got to fly that Boeing 767 for several hours to burn off fuel, and pull off some stunts that you would have been sacked for pre-Event. I could have insisted on you just dumping the fuel and heading straight for the landing strip.”
She gave him an ingratiating grin. “Oh, but you’re a good boss! You’d never do that to me.”
“Even so, you got to do the flying last, so it’ll be my turn next.”
Machspeed had to chuckle. Amelia had taken to her new life as a unicorn exceptionally well, and retained her sense of fun and joy of flying. He never regretted hiring her into the Aeronautical Returnee Rescue Response Squad, and the team liked her a lot. But she was like a lost puppy when there was nothing to do for a long while. Fortunately he had a plan to ameliorate the situation.
“I was saving this for the team meeting, but Flashpoint and I have been organising a team event that should alleviate your boredom. It’s why I asked everypony to keep the day free. We’re going to have a beach party starting right after the meeting.”
“Beach party?!” Amelia exclaimed, her ears perking up. “That sounds fun.”
“I thought we could all do with some excitement, and it’s good for the team’s morale.”
“I’m all for that. Anything I can do to help?”
“I’ll let you know when I tell the others at the meeting.”
“Okay. Thanks, Mach! You’ve brightened my day already.” The mare trotted out of his office with her tail swishing excitedly.
The A.R.R.R.S. team arrived at the beach with a cart laden with food and equipment that was being hauled by their muscly earth pony stallion member. While Pounder was being helped out of the harness, the rest started unloading the cart and taking everything to a spot where the vegetation ended and the sand was bare. Some started setting up a marquee to give them shade and a wind-break if the breeze picked up, while others set up a barbecue and folding tables. One pegasus stallion immediately took charge of the barbecue, and he started the process of getting a suitable fire going. Several ponies started food preparation while others set up a net for volleyball. Seaweed and other materials washed up on the shore were used to demarcate the courts. Machspeed mixed up some dough and placed it into a covered pan that he placed into the barbecue coals, while the pegasus grilled corn cobs and other vegetables.
While they were waiting, the remainder of the team started a volleyball game. Pegasi weren’t allowed to use their wings, but that didn’t stop them from being agile leapers at the edge of the net. The two earth ponies on the teams took places at the back of the courts. Amelia and Flashpoint were also on opposing teams. Unicorns were not allowed to use telekinesis during play, but Amelia had grown up without it and was better suited to the magic-free game.
Several of the team had brought along their spouses and children which included Machspeed and Flashpoint’s filly, Starstruck, named after the star-shaped blaze on her forehead just below her horn. The foals raced away to play in the water, while Flashpoint appointed herself as lifeguard.
The volleyball game had not achieved a result before it was announced that the food was ready, and the ponies immediately lined up to get their meal. Machspeed retrieved the pan from the coals and removed the lid to reveal the perfectly baked damper inside. He took it out of the pan and tore pieces of the hot bread off to put on the plates of the ponies as they passed by. Soon everyone had a plate heaped with food and had settled down to eat in the shade of the marquee. Sunbeam, the barbecue tender, was heaped with praise for a job well done.
After the meal, they broke up into groups for various activities. Some resumed the volleyball game, while others preferred to throw around a Frisbee, and a few opted to play in the waves. They swapped activities all through the afternoon, and there was a sandcastle building contest at one stage. By the time the sun was setting, everyone was feeling a bit tired, and had worked up an appetite. A second round of food preparation began, and they ate in the fading twilight.
Musical instruments were brought out and some enthusiastic singing was done, tapering off into some instrumentals. By the time the last tune was done, the stars were out in all their glory, undimmed by the lack of light pollution. While some of the team remained sitting around the campfire and chatting, others had wandered away down the beach. The earth ponies were currently snuggling back in the vegetation, and another couple was currently kissing and holding hooves just out of voice range. Machspeed and his wife, Flashpoint, had pushed together some sand that they could lie back on and would support their heads while they cuddled together and watched the stars.
“This was a great idea, Flash,” Machspeed said.
“It was a good excuse to come down here and cuddle with you,” she replied with a sly grin.
“It’s better starting with all our friends though. It just makes this time all the more sweet.”
“Uh-huh,” she replied, leaning over to kiss him. “Thanks for finding me and giving me a great life.”
Machspeed gave her a long kiss in reply. “Thanks for making my new life complete.”
He put an arm around her shoulders as she leaned into him, and they watched the stars in contentment.
It was about half an hour later when Flashpoint noticed something unusual.
“Look at that star,” she said as she pointed with a hoof. “Why is it moving like that?”
Machspeed spotted what she was talking about. “Oh, that’s not a star. That would have to be a satellite. It’s remarkably bright for one though.”
“What’s a satellite?”
“They’re artificial devices that humans used to launch into space. They were used for communications, weather observation, and orbital studies of the surface.”
“That’s amazing. They’ve been up there all this time and I’ve never seen one before.” She felt Machspeed suddenly tense. “Is something wrong, Mach?”
“Thirty-two centuries is a long time, alright. Too long. All the low-Earth-orbit satellites would have suffered orbital decay ages ago and crashed back to the ground, and the geostationary ones would be too far away to see by the naked eye, so what is that satellite doing up there?”
“One survived somehow?” Flashpoint guessed.
“Not possible. Those things had lives measured in decades, not centuries, and even then they needed to be monitored to keep them where they belonged. The only answer is that it’s new, and the only way that is possible is if it just suddenly appeared, and do you know the only way that is possible?”
“If there were Returnees on it?”
“You mean to tell me that humans went up into space too?”
“They’ve even walked on the moon! My god, I think I know what we were looking at!” He scrambled to his hooves and started heading back to the marquee, and Flashpoint hastily followed.
“Amelia!” Machspeed called out as he approached the group. “What’s four hundred kilometres above the ground, travels around the Earth in an hour and a half, and has people on it?”
“Umm… the International Space Station?” she replied.
“I think I just saw it.”
“You’re shitting me!”
“Nope. It’s big enough to be easily spotted if you’re looking in the right place at the right time.”
“Where is it?” Amelia started scanning the night sky.
“You’re too late. It’s beyond the horizon by now. I don’t know how long it has been Returned, but there should be a crew of six aboard it. There’s no way that they can get back to Earth safely in their condition.”
“Are you thinking of launching a rescue mission for those astronauts,” Amelia asked with growing excitement.
“First we have to try to contact the I.S.S.”
“How are we going to do that? Radio, I suppose, but what frequency?” Flashpoint asked.
“As I recall, they used to chat with people on the ground with ham radios. It should be a fairly simple process to find out, if they are transmitting.”
Amelia looked concerned. “Mach – how long have they been up there? If no one has realised what that is before, they could have been up there for months without support. We could be trying to rescue corpses.”
“I know, but if they only just arrived, they’re going to need our help.”
“Then I suggest we head over to Coolangatta airport. They’ve got some good radio equipment over there.”
Machspeed grimaced. “The airport will be closed by now.”
“Then go back to the office and phone up some other airport that might be open still.”
Machspeed face-hoofed. “Of course. I’m going to head there now. The rest of you might as well keep enjoying yourselves. I don’t think I’ll be needing you tonight even if I can get in contact.”
“Are you kidding me, Mach?” Amelia asked. “I’m not letting the most exciting thing to happen in a long time just blow right past me. Let’s go!”
“I’ll look after things here,” Sunray offered. “I’ll make sure everything is packed up and stowed properly.”
“Thanks, Ray,” Machspeed said with a nod, and then he, Flashpoint, and Amelia headed back to the office.
The A.R.R.R.S. office was also Machspeed and Flashpoint’s home, which meant that there was always someone there to answer the phone if an emergency occurred during the night. However, as they were all going to be at the beach party, their daytime receptionist had agreed to stay back and work overtime in their absence. She was surprised to see Machspeed much earlier than anticipated.
“Is something wrong, sir?” Rosethorn asked.
“Something has come up, Rose. We could be needing you, so don’t go yet.”
Rosethorn was used to the odd hours that the job occasionally entailed, and she nodded in acceptance.
Machspeed headed into his office, followed closely by the others. He rummaged in his desk drawer for the list of phone contacts at various airports and rescue services, eventually pulling out a shabby dog-eared book with a cry of triumph. His magic turned the pages until he found what he was looking for, and then he picked up the receiver of the phone on his desk. He dialled the number and waited for an answer.
“Auckland Air Traffic Control – Jetstream speaking,” came a mare’s voice on the other end.
“Hey, Jet! It’s Machspeed here.”
“Mach? What’s up? There’s nothing needing your gang of pirates here at the moment,” Jetstream answered with a tinge of humour.
“You’re not going to believe this one, but we’re going to need your help for a change.”
“Oh? Must be really important to call me in the middle of the night, so hit me with it.”
After a terse summation of what he had seen and what he suspected, Machspeed waited for a response from Jetstream. After a brief stunned silence, Jetstream replied.
“Get your fuzzy flank over here! We’re going into the astronaut business!”
Machspeed, Flashpoint, and Amelia (who had threatened mayhem if she was left behind) teleported into Jetstream’s office. She was not there though, so they had to wait until she showed up. The pegasus mare arrived six minutes later with a small drake in tow.
“Sorry to keep you waiting, but I had to grab Rangi first. He’s our resident radio expert. Rangi – this is Machspeed, boss of the A-Triple-R Squad, and his wife, Flashpoint.”
“Happy to meet you, Boss,” Rangi replied, holding out a clawed hand to shake their hooves.”
“Same here, Rangi. This is Amelia, by the way, a fairly recent addition to the team. She’s a pilot also.”
Jetstream and Rangi both shook Amelia’s hoof.
“So, with a name like Amelia and skills as a pilot, may I guess that you’re a Returnee also?” Jetstream asked.
“Got it in one,” Amelia confirmed.
“Me too. The authorities like to grab us Returnees for our pre-Event skills. Back then I was called Robert Garland.”
Amelia stared for a moment. “You used to be a guy? How did you feel about the sex change?”
Jetstream grinned. “Honestly? It didn’t bother me in the slightest. I’d lived a full life as a male human, so becoming a young female pony felt more like an adventure than a problem. I was healthier than I could recall in a very long time, and I learned to use these wings to really fly. After a couple of decades, the thrill still hasn’t worn off.”
“As much fun as it is to chat about our lives,” Machspeed interjected, “we’re here for a reason.”
Jetstream nodded. “If the I.S.S. can be contacted, Rangi will find the way.”
Rangi grinned excitedly. “I can hardly believe that there might actually be people up there in space! Jetstream reckons that they used to be able to chat with amateur radio enthusiasts back pre-Event, right? I’ve researched that kind of thing, and I believe I know where to start. You’ll have to give me a bit of time to put together the necessary equipment before we can give it a try.”
“Rangi, if you can contact anyone up there, you’re going to be famous.”
The drake’s grin grew broader. “If they’re up there and still alive, I’ll be stoked just to be able to talk to them! Real astronauts! I’m excited! I… I gotta go!”
Rangi rushed out of the office, leaving behind the bemused A.R.R.R.S members.
“Bit excitable, isn’t he?” Machspeed asked with a smirk.
Jetstream nodded. “Yep, but if it can be done, he’s the one to do it. Can I offer you ponies something to drink while we wait? It might be a while.”
A hoof shook Amelia’s shoulder and she woke to find herself lying on the couch she had been sitting on while waiting for something to happen. Unsurprisingly, sleep had overtaken her, but judging by the bleary looks on the faces of Machspeed and Flashpoint, they had succumbed also.
Jetstream said, “Rangi thinks he’s got a contact, but the I.S.S. moved out of range before he could confirm. It takes about ninety minutes to orbit, and its position ought to be better next time around, so your best chance is coming up soon.”
The pegasus led them from the office and through the building until she came to a door marked ‘Workshop’. When they entered, they found Rangi with a lot of jury-rigged radio equipment on a workbench. The drake looked at them with an eager smile.
“I reckon I’ve cracked it. It took me a while to set up a new antenna for this rig and try to find the right frequency, but in only about ten minutes, we will know for sure if what I detected is them.”
Machspeed said, “Considering their normal avenue of communication is almost certainly unavailable, if I were them, I would be trying the ham radio bands constantly. As long as we’re listening on the correct wavelength, we should be hearing from them.”
“If they’re not dead and we’re not chasing corpses,” Amelia reminded them all.
That thought hung over the entire group as they tensely waited for the space station to come into range. Machspeed was beginning to have a sinking feeling when a quarter hour passed without sign, but an incoherent burst of noise from the radio made them all sit up with renewed excitement.
Rangi fiddled with the tuner a bit, and a minute later another burst came through. This time it was more than mere noise, but still incomprehensible. Nevertheless it had the semblance of modulation to it. Another adjustment and Rangi hit the transmission switch.
“This is Auckland Air Traffic Control – is anyone receiving me? Over.”
They waited in vain for a response for a minute before another signal arrived. It was still weak but otherwise clear.
“This is Commander Ferguson on the International Space Station calling anyone who might hear this transmission. Please respond. Over.” The voice had an American accent and sounded tired and stressed.
Everyone cheered excitedly before Rangi hushed them. “Commander Ferguson, we hear you! I am Rangi Whetu transmitting from Auckland Air Traffic Control. Are you receiving me? Over.”
“Auckland, I’m receiving you, thank God! We have been trying to contact someone on the ground for six days. We have encountered a major problem and have lost communications with Houston Control. Can you help us? Over.”
All the listeners had been able to hear other excited voices in the background.
Rangi hit the transmit switch again. “Commander Ferguson, we are aware of the problem. I am turning the microphone over to Machspeed, a rescue specialist. Over.”
Machspeed took the microphone from Rangi. “Commander, I am Captain Machspeed, head of the Aeronautical Returnee Rescue Response Squad, a specialist emergency team. First of all, let me tell you that what has happened to you, happened to every human on Earth. There is no need to dance around the fact that you have been transformed into something else, likely ponies of some kind, but possibly other kinds of creatures. Over.”
Even over the radio, the listeners could tell that Ferguson was stunned. “How did… Every human? Over.”
“Yes, and it’s a long story, but that’s not all. Commander, that happened over three thousand years ago. However, the majority of people were shoved forward into the future and have been popping out of the time-stream randomly ever since. I gather that you did just six days ago? Over.”
“Three thousand years? That would be a lot harder to swallow if I wasn’t a small winged pony right now. We had wondered at what had happened to all the city lights though. As totally bizarre as what you have said sounds, I’m forced to believe you. As you are the first contact that we have managed to make in six days, does that mean that civilisation collapsed? Over.”
“Sadly, yes. Long story best saved for later. Right now, what is your status, Commander? Over.”
“Not good, Captain. I and several others are these colourful pony creatures you mentioned, although Doctor Underwood seems to be a unicorn, and Lieutenant Mgabe is a zebra. Anton and Yuri are griffins, I think. If it wasn’t for those two, we would be in a worse predicament because we now have useless hooves while they still have grasping claws that can manipulate things. However, that doesn’t overcome the problem that the facilities were not designed for non-humans, and things are getting very unpleasant up here, not to mention that we seem unable to stomach some of the food. Over.”
Machspeed had been thinking of all the things that could go wrong, and probably hadn’t thought of even a fraction of them. He shuddered. Thankfully they had been spotted before something irrevocably bad happened. Considering that the Commander had not mentioned such though, he began to feel a bit more optimistic. “Commander, I assume that you are not in a position to get down from the space station by your own means, correct? Over.”
“That is mostly correct, Captain, although ironically it is tantalisingly within our reach. A shuttle had just arrived to resupply us, and some of us were scheduled to return in it. We cannot control it as we are now though, so it’s useless to us. Over.”
Machspeed’s eyes opened wide and he stared at Amelia. “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” he asked her.
“Yes!” she practical shouted.
“What are you talking about?” Flashpoint asked with a hint of annoyance.
Amelia turned to her with an almost manic grin. “Salvaging the space shuttle! What a coup that would be!”
“You can’t tell me that you know how to fly one of those!” Flashpoint said sceptically.
“If it can be done, we’ll do it!” Machspeed replied before turning back to the radio. “Commander, my team and I are going to work out a rescue plan. It’s a little outside our normal field of operations, so it might take us a little while to put it together, so hang in there for a little while longer. Over.”
“A little outside? Captain, we’re orbiting at an altitude of about four hundred kilometres and travelling at over twenty seven thousand kilometres per hour. How on Earth do you expect to help us? You can’t tell me that you have a space program if civilisation has gone downhill. Over.”
“Trust us, Commander. You will believe in magic. Over.”
Machspeed, Amelia, and Flashpoint left Jetstream and Rangi talking with the occupants of the space station. For as long as they were within radio range, they informed the astronauts about the details of the Event that had occurred on the 23rd of May 2015, why it happened, and what had happened to civilisation after that. Flashpoint teleported them all back to their base where they could start making plans. She was the first to raise an objection though.
“Sure, I can teleport us up four hundred kilometres; that’s closer than the trip we just did to Auckland and back. There’s no way in hell that I can match that speed though!”
“What if you did it in stages?” Machspeed suggested. “Get us up there, then build up speed in jumps until we’re close enough to lock onto the space station?”
She stared at him as if he had lost his mind. “And what are we to breathe while we’re making those jumps? I’m no expert on space, but I do know that there’s no air up there.”
“I already have ideas about that. We need an airtight pod that we can stay in while you make the jumps. It could have a porthole to look through so you can get a visual on it. We can use the pod to bring the astronauts down too.”
Flashpoint looked thoughtful. “W-e-l-l… that does sound possible,” she admitted. “There’s still the problem of me targeting the space station. I’m used to doing that from much closer and way slower relative velocities.”
“If we had the luxury of time, we could build some sort of crude tracking device, but I think that we’re going to have to rely on dead-reckoning. Even spending the time building the pod is a necessary evil,” Machspeed replied.
“I don’t get it,” Flashpoint said with a frown. “They apparently aren’t in any danger of crashing, and they have air and food, so what’s the rush?”
Amelia put a hoof on Flashpoint’s shoulder. “Flash, take it from us – any problem in space is major. It’s totally hostile to all life, and the systems on the space station are very sophisticated to support the crew aboard. But that’s a human crew.”
“But all the commander said was that it was not good, not a disaster!”
Amelia sighed. “Astronauts are some of the most highly skilled and disciplined professionals in existence. When Apollo 13 had an explosion that came close to killing them, they only said: ‘We have a problem’ when they reported it. ‘Not good’ is their equivalent of a big problem.”
“Oh. So time is really of the essence then?”
Machspeed replied, “The truth is that we cannot know. They might be able to adapt and survive for weeks, or things might even now be getting close to desperate. It’s up to us to ensure that it doesn’t reach that point, and that means acting in the most expeditious manner.”
“Right,” Flashpoint conceded. “So let’s get started. We have a pod to build!”
“You want a what?!” Hammerstrike exclaimed.
Hammerstrike was head of the crew that salvaged equipment and materials from the aircraft that the A.R.R.R.S. rescued. Machspeed had approached him with their need.
“A space pod,” Machspeed repeated. “Basically just an airtight metal shell with a window in it big enough to hold several ponies or other species.”
“So – just the simplest and quickest box that I can build that isn’t going to get you killed up there in space? Not even a door?” the earth pony asked.
Amelia said, “I’ll teleport us in and out.”
“Then don’t forget to teleport fresh air in with you.”
“Good point. The pod will have to be big enough to have enough air to sustain us while we manoeuvre, and that’s going both ways.”
Machspeed nodded in agreement. “So how long will it take you?”
“Give us a few hours. It won’t be pretty, but I’ll make sure it won’t blow up on you.” Hammerstrike turned around and gave a piercing whistle. “Everypony drop what you’re doing. We have a Priority One job to do!”
‘Not pretty’ was definitely an understatement, Amelia decided. The space pod was basically a steel frame with sheets of metal welded on it. With several ponies working on it, putting it together had not taken very long. It was ensuring that all the joints were airtight that had taken a lot of time. She watched as Hammerstrike disconnected an air hose from the pod that he had been using to pressure-test it, and then screw in a plug to seal it. It matched a port on the opposite that he had used to flush the worst of the welding and sealant fumes from inside.
“There – it’s as ready as this hideous thing will ever be,” Hammerstrike said.
Amelia looked thoughtful before replying, “Nope – one more thing. Got any red paint?”
“Sure.” Hammerstike trotted off, returning a minute later with the handle of a paint-can in his teeth, with a brush sitting on the lid. He put it down in front of Amelia and watched curiously as she popped the lid off with her telekinesis and dipped the brush in the paint. She then proceeded to draw a design followed by the squad’s initials underneath. She stepped back to admire her handiwork and nodded in satisfaction. Hammerstrike chuckled and said, “Yep, that makes it official. Better go tell Mach it’s ready to fly.”
Amelia nodded and galloped off, leaving the crew to laugh over the skull and crossbones that Amelia had painted on the pod below the window.
Flashpoint teleported out of the pod after a practice ’port into it to take a volume of fresh air inside. The trick was to not take too much or else there would be too big of a change in air pressure. With the plugs out, this was not too large a problem, but they would not have that luxury while up in orbit. She looked at the clock on the wall. “It’s nearly time.”
Machspeed nodded. “Hopefully we’ve figured out correctly when they will be within relatively easy reach. Are you ready?”
“How can one be ready for this? Let’s do it anyway.”
Machspeed turned to Amelia and said, “This is going to be risky, which is why I want only Flashpoint and me to go…urk!”
He was cut off as Amelia grabbed his jacket in her magic and wrenched him over to her until they were muzzle to muzzle. She then glared at him and said in a deadly level voice, “Consider very carefully which is more dangerous – taking me with you or leaving me behind?”
Flashpoint was killing herself laughing as Machspeed very quickly decided that a crew of three might be more appropriate.
“All aboard!” Flashpoint said, putting her forelegs about the other two. A moment later, they were in almost complete darkness within the pod, wrinkling their noses at the smell within. Only a small amount of light admitted by the porthole lit the shell until Flashpoint’s horn glowed once more as she teleported the pod straight up about four hundred kilometres… hopefully. Without a reference point, it was a bit of an educated guess based on experience on her part.
The improvised pod creaked and groaned at the sudden pressure difference, and a searing beam of unfiltered sunlight came through the porthole, startling them with its intensity, but that was quickly forgotten as they dealt with the sudden loss of gravity. All three floated weightlessly within the pod. Only two were coping with it though.
Machspeed and Amelia managed to dodge most of the vomit as Flashpoint violently upchucked. Machspeed was almost ready to sacrifice his jacket to gather the vomit until Amelia pointed out a rag that had been left behind by one of the workers. It did nothing to help with the smell though.
Machspeed looked at Flashpoint with some concern. “Are you going to be able to go on, or should we go back?” he asked her.
His wife looked at him queasily and shook her head. “I… I’ll be okay. The sudden change… was a bit much.”
“If you say so. Are you ready to do the velocity ’port?”
“Yeah. Which way though?”
Amelia was at the portal, and she said, “All I can see beside the sun is space. I have no idea which way we have to go.”
Machspeed frowned. “I’m going to have to try rotating the pod until we can see the Earth and get our bearings. Hang on….” His horn lit up, and then he abruptly started spinning in place. “Whoa!”
“What happened?” Amelia asked.
The stallion looked chagrined. “Without anything to anchor me, my telekinesis doesn’t work too well. The greater mass of the pod meant that it spun me more than I spun it!”
Amelia looked out of the portal again. “Don’t let it worry you – it was enough. I can just see Earth slowly coming into view. One moment…. Okay, I know which way to go.” With her eyes still on the planet, she stuck out a foreleg in the appropriate direction. “Thataway!”
Flashpoint groaned. “This is crazy!” Nevertheless her horn lit up, and they felt the jolt of teleportation several times as she boosted their velocity in stages.
“How much speed did we gain?” Amelia asked when Flashpoint finished.
“Do I look like a speedometer?” Flashpoint growled. “Lots, okay? I estimated it relative to the motion of the planet below, but it’s still a best guess.”
“Seriously, honey,” Machspeed said placatingly, “we need to know that we’re going into orbit and not hurtling towards the ground.”
Flashpoint stretched out her magical senses. “If it makes you feel better, we seem to be gaining altitude.”
“That’s a relief. However, if we started at the correct altitude and are rising, that means were going faster than the space station, which means it’s likely that we won’t get close enough to detect the I.S.S. You’re going to have to slow us down a tad.”
“Speed up! Slow down! I’m not an aircraft engine!” Flashpoint whined. She strained her talent to try to make a good guess at how much to slow down. “There! I hope that did it, because I’m getting very tired, and this nausea isn’t helping.”
“Good work, Flash,” Machspeed said, giving her a quick hug. “The space station ought to be coming within range very soon. The moment you can sense it, try to match velocities.”
“I know! I know! Leave me alone!”
Machspeed seriously hoped that spacesickness was not going to abort their rescue plans. If they missed the I.S.S. on this try, they would have to go back to the ground because they would not be able to stay in orbit for too long without replenishing the air. It was already getting stuffy in the pod.
Amelia spoke up. “I think you had better try cancelling the spin on the pod, Mach. Otherwise we’re going to lose our view of the planet again.”
“I should have gotten them to put in more windows.” Machspeed went into his Whirling Dervish routine again.
“Stop!” Amelia cried out. “I think that’s as close as we’re going to get to completely still.”
“Good. I was getting dizzy.”
“OUCH!” Flashpoint cried out, jerking her leg away from the wall where she had been trying to brace herself.
“What’s wrong, honey?” Machspeed asked in concern.
“The wall – it’s really hot!”
Now that he was paying attention, Machspeed could feel the heat coming from it. “Damn! Maybe we should have taken the time to insulate this thing a bit. The sun is shining on that side with nothing to stop it. Watch out for the opposite side – it’ll be getting freezing cold.”
“This has got to be the most hare-brained rescue we’ve ever tried,” Flashpoint complained queasily.
“Do you want to go back? I know I’m putting too much pressure on you and your talent…”
“Stop right there! I’m here because I want to rescue those astronauts, not because you badgered me into doing this. If it wasn’t for the urgency of the mission, I would want us to think this through a lot more, and build a better pod, but we don’t have the luxury of time, so we have to deal with it. So let me concentrate and try to find that damn space station!” She shut her eyes and stretched out her senses once again.
Machspeed dutifully shut up and let his wife try her best to find the needle in the haystack.
There were several tense minutes while nothing happened except for the air getting worse. Machspeed was seriously considering aborting the mission when Flashpoint suddenly gasped and opened her eyes.
“I think I’ve got it. Hang on!”
There was a jolt of teleportation, and Amelia looked frantically for the space station.
“I can’t see it!”
Flashpoint pointed at a wall that did not have the porthole in it. “It’s that way.”
Machspeed immediately set about spinning the pod until Amelia announced that she could now see it. He waited until it was in clear view before cancelling the spin, then held a hoof to his head. “Urk! If I try that again, I think I might join my wife in chucking-up.”
“Guys!” Amelia called out. “We’ve got an audience!”
Flashpoint and Machspeed joined Amelia at the window. About thirty metres away, the I.S.S. floated serenely, and the observation cupola had a purple pegasus stallion gaping in shock at the sight of the bizarre pod. They grinned and waved at the pony who automatically waved back.
They drew back from the window, and Machspeed said, “It looks like you’ve matched their velocity perfectly, so we aren’t going to lose the pod or bump into the space station while we’re over there. Awesome job, darling!” He gave Flashpoint a hug. “Now let’s pay our friends a visit!”
That was by far the easiest ’port that Flashpoint had to do. From that short range, she could clearly sense the open areas where it was safe to travel, and she could place them with precision. “I’m going to swap a volume of air equivalent to us between the space shuttle and the pod, otherwise the displaced air will create too much of a shockwave in those confined quarters.”
Her horn lit up, and abruptly they found themselves aboard their goal. The first thing they noticed were the yells and screams of surprise at their sudden appearance. The second was the bad smell. Things were definitely wrong up here, but the rescue crew put on their professional faces and gave the astronauts confident smiles.
“G’day everyone!” Machspeed started in his most professional and confident voice. “We’re from the Aeronautical Returnee Rescue Response Squad, and I am Captain Machspeed. These are Flashpoint and Amelia. It is our pleasure to be your rescuers for today.”
The pegasus that they had seen in the cupola approached them. “I’m Commander Ferguson. How the hell did you get in here?”
“Same way we got up into orbit.” Machspeed indicated Flashpoint. “Courtesy of my lovely wife’s astounding teleportation skills.”
“Astounding is correct, but mind-boggling is what I call that!” Ferguson said as pointed towards the pod seen through the cupola.
“Yes, well, we don’t exactly have a space program, so we had to improvise.” He looked around at the rest of the crew as they gathered. In the few days that they had been transformed, they had apparently managed to figure out how to use their new forms in freefall to manoeuvre sufficiently well. “So, how about some introductions?”
Ferguson introduced the crew, although Doctor Underwood was easily identified as the only unicorn aboard, and Mgabe the only zebra. Yuri and Anton were easily distinguished despite both being griffins due to their very different plumage and fur colours. The remainder of the crew were either pegasi or earth ponies. With a total of ten crew including the four that came up with the shuttle, plus the three rescuers, it was getting plenty crowded in there.
“Okay, our first priority is to get you all safely on the ground,” Machspeed announced. “We’ll be using the pod out there to get you down because as awesome as Flashpoint’s abilities are, killing the relative velocities between here and the ground requires more than one ’port, and the more people aboard, the more mass to deal with. We’ve made the pod big enough to hold all of you, but it also means that the air supply is very limited, so we will have to do it as quickly as possible.”
“You don’t have an auxiliary air supply in your capsule?” Underwood asked.
“We don’t have anything in there. Calling it a capsule is exaggerating its sophistication, as it’s basically an airtight box with a window. As I said, we don’t have a space program, nor do we have any instruments or equipment that we could adapt for this rescue. All we have is sheer native talent. So who’s ready to trust in magic?” Machspeed asked with a grin.
“You already did the impossible getting up here,” Anton replied drily in English that only had a slight Russian accent. “Getting down is easy.”
Machspeed laughed. “Yeah, it’s stopping safely that’s the tricky bit. Anyway, if there’s anything that you really want to take back with you, I suggest you go grab it. You have a bit of time before our orbit brings us back over our base for the easiest teleportation. While you’re doing that, we’re going to have a look around the space station and check out the shuttle, with your permission.”
Ferguson replied, “I suppose there’s not much point in stopping you under the circumstances, although I do advise not touching anything. You can still accidentally cause problems, especially if you’re unfamiliar with manoeuvring in freefall.”
“Noted. We’ll be careful. Amelia and I have had some experience....”
“And I’m not going anywhere,” Flashpoint interjected. “I’m still queasy without trying to aggravate it more.”
“Perhaps I’ll come with you,” Ferguson suggested.
“Good idea. Lead the way,” Machspeed replied.
The pegasus did so, awkwardly pushing at handholds not designed for hooves, his wings occasionally fluttering in an attempt to correct his attitude.
“Are you getting any use out of your wings yet, Commander?”
“Call me Ryan, and no. I can’t figure out how to control them.”
“Don’t worry – you will eventually, and then you can start enjoying them.”
“What good are tiny wings on a pony though?”
“Flying without the need for an aircraft would be at the top of my list.”
“You can’t be serious! These things couldn’t possibly get me off the ground, let alone fly.”
“And ponies can’t teleport into orbit either,” Machspeed pointed out. “It’s magic, Ryan – get used it. Magic pervades most aspects of our lives, and it’s a genuine force in the universe now. Spells can be written to accomplish amazing things, and it lets me do things like this.” He reached out with his telekinesis and detached a pouch that was tied to the wall, brought it over surrounded in the glow of his magic, opened it and pulled out its contents, then put them back inside and replaced the pouch.
“That’s amazing, but it also explains how you were able to build that pod without hands. Will I be able to do that?”
Amelia shook her head and tapped her horn. “Sorry, you gotta have one of these to do that. However, you will be able to fly, while we unicorns can’t. Most of us can’t even teleport like Flashpoint can.”
“However, you don’t need a horn to manipulate many things. You can still do a lot with these.” Machspeed held up his forehooves.
Ferguson looked at him disbelievingly. “Now I know you’re kidding me. What do you think we’ve been trying to do this past week?”
Amelia gave him a confident smile. “Trust me! A couple of years ago, I was in your position, sitting at the controls of an A380 and going nuts trying to figure out how I was going to land it and not kill myself and all the passengers in the attempt. Now though, I can handle things like a pro, and I rescue planes for a living.”
Machspeed added, “And while I was lucky enough not to be in the air when the Event occurred, I had to learn how to use hooves and forearms too. Before you say something like I don’t have arms anymore, when we use our forelegs like arms, we tend to refer to them as such. Even natural-born ponies do that. It’s a trait that separates magical equines from natural ones.”
Ferguson smirked. “After seeing what some of what magic can do, I’m hardly going to nit-pick about terminology. Right now I’m more interested in the possibility of actually flying one day.”
“You’ll get plenty of training once we get back down on Earth, but for now, you have a couple of extremely curious rescuers who want to play space tourist.”
Ferguson laughed, perhaps the first real laugh that he had done since becoming a pony. “I know the feeling, and I’ll try to give you your money’s worth.”
The commander gave them a comprehensive tour of the space station. Occasionally they would encounter astronauts trying to retrieve articles that they wished to take with them, most of which were personal, but some pet projects also. Flashpoint was helping occasionally when their fumbling efforts were in vain. Eventually they asked about the shuttle, and Ferguson guided them to the access tube that connected the I.S.S. to the shuttle. Machspeed noticed that despite his protests, the astronaut was making reasonable use of his new body after a week’s practice in zero gee, probably even better than himself. It had been a long time since the rescue pilot had practice in freefall manoeuvres in the special plane flights, and very little of it even then. The airlock door was securely shut as per standard operating procedure when the shuttle was not in use, and Ferguson turned to look at Machspeed.
“Could I prevail upon you to open the hatch for me? Until I learn how to use these hooves like you do, it’s a bit awkward for me, and I don’t have a horn as a back-up.”
“No worries.” Machspeed opened the hatch and waved Ferguson ahead. The Pegasus passed through, followed by Amelia, and then Machspeed. Amelia was grinning like a fool when Machspeed saw her face; it probably matched the one on his own.
“We’re really here. We’re really aboard the space shuttle! I never dreamed this could happen. Can I fly it first?”
“I beg your pardon?” Ferguson said with eyebrows raised in surprise. “I thought you were going to be using your pod out there? Besides, does either of you know how to pilot this?”
Machspeed replied, “Yes, we’re going to take you down in the pod. However, aside from the fact that the A-Triple-R Squad makes its money by salvaging pre-Event equipment, neither of us would pass up the opportunity to fly this thing. But you’re right – neither of us has trained for this. Care to help us out? You are one of the pilots, right?”
“I am, and you’re nuts. There’s a hell of lot less room for error trying to land one of these than a normal aircraft.”
“I’m ex-air force, so I’m no stranger to more esoteric craft, so I reckon it’s not too difficult to learn.”
“Are you willing to bet your life?”
“Not really, but I do have one advantage that you never had – I can escape in an emergency.”
Ferguson thought for a moment, and then nodded. “Teleportation. Handy, I admit, but you still need your escape pod, don’t you? You said that you had to get here in stages, so you can’t just go back to Earth in one jump.”
“That’s right, but correct me if I’m wrong when I say I think it will fit in the cargo bay.” Machspeed gestured to the compartment behind the crew area.
“You have a point, providing you made that pod the right size.”
“We had to guess a lot because there are no records left aside from our memories, but we think it will fit. We’ll give it a try if you consent to give us some training.”
“I still think you’re crazy, but this whole situation is nuts, so why not one more thing? We aren’t going to do it in just a few hours though. If you’re going to bring this bird home, you’re going to have to train on these systems for a while.”
“If that’s what it takes, we’ll do it!” Amelia interjected.
Machspeed grinned. “My colleague has spoken. You have your trainees. Now let’s go back and have a look around the rest of the station while we wait until we’re back in prime position to return to the ground.”
The time seemed to fly by as the visitors were shown around the I.S.S. One of the crew who was keeping an eye on their orbital status announced that desired time was about to arrive, and they all gathered back in the largest open area. Flashpoint took a pendant that had been hanging around her neck since they had left the ground, and found a place to secure it.
“What’s that?” asked Doctor Underwood.
“A magic charm,” Flashpoint replied. The crew gave her sceptical looks and she grinned. “Okay, it’s a bit more complicated than that. It really is magic though. It’s a mana beacon that I can use to home in on the space station when I return. This way I won’t have to guess and estimate like I did coming up here. We really did have a large dollop of luck finding you, but this will take luck out of the equation. I created it with my magic, so it’s attuned to me, so I’ll know where it is now.”
“This magic is going to take a lot of getting used to,” one of the crew admitted. “It just defies the laws of physics.”
“But not the laws of magic. You have to understand that thaumaturgy is also a legitimate science now. It has laws and formulas, and its interaction with the classic sciences is consistent. Spells are actually precise equations, although the simplest of them seem to require no great effort or thought. What can be achieved with magic is very complex though, and understanding it is still a work in progress. Anyway, we can discuss this more once we get you back on the ground. Everyone hold onto your neighbours, and I’ll ’port us over to the pod.”
The pony astronauts awkwardly hooked hooves or limbs together, and a moment later they found themselves all within the pod. It was a lot more crowded now that there were thirteen people inside.
“That was mind-blowing,” Mgabe commented, “even if it’s now a legitimate science.”
“Time to be boggled later,” Flashpoint said. “I transferred a volume of air with us, but it’s not going to last long with so many ponies in here, so I have to make this a quick trip. It shouldn’t be long though, so everypony align their hooves with the wall that has the yellow paint. That’s going to be the floor when we get down.”
Flashpoint waited until they were in acceptable orientation.
“Okay, let’s go!”
Flashpoint started killing their speed in a short series of hops that brought them into position over Australia, and then made the transition down to the A.R.R.R. Squad’s headquarters. There were cries of surprise and disorientation as gravity suddenly made itself known. She let them steady themselves before she teleported them all out into the workshop, emerging onto a roped-off area of the floor.
Machspeed smiled at the astronauts and announced, “Welcome back to Earth, ladies and gentlemen. I hope you enjoyed the ride.”
The workshop crew dropped their tools and started stomping their hooves in applause, both for the squad’s success at the rescue, and for the astronauts who had achieved what no pony had done since the disappearance of the human race. The hoof-stomping bewildered the new ponies, but the cheers made them smile, even as they staggered around trying to figure out how to walk anew.
Ferguson looked up at one of the pegasus workers who was hovering over the group. “Well, I’ll be damned – will you look at that!”
The astronauts embarrassed the pegasus mare with all the attention they gave her as they wondered over the impossibility of a pony that could fly. Flashpoint nudged Machspeed and said, “They’ve already forgotten about teleporting,” she commented with a wry smile.
Machspeed cuddled his wife. “What can I save, love? They’re astronauts, and flying is in their blood.”
Machspeed had contacted the usual authorities for when the A.R.R.R. Squad brought in a bunch of Returnees. They weren’t usually picked up from the squad’s headquarters though, and it took a bit of extra explaining this time. Nevertheless, they were soon all bussed away for their induction into their new lives.
“I thought you needed my help?” Ferguson asked Machspeed before they left.
“We do, but your welfare is more important than our salvaging right now. Let the authorities do their thing for the first few days, and then we’ll meet up again. The I.S.S. will be okay by itself until then, right?”
“Barring unforeseen circumstances, it should be fine. Might even give the systems time to clear the air a bit too. What if we have problems finding each other again though?”
“Admittedly we don’t tend to follow-up on the people we rescue – Amelia came and found us rather than the other way around. However, I doubt it will be a problem. Just in case though, Flashpoint suggested that we insure our investment.”
The mare stepped forward and tied a small charm around Ferguson’s neck.
“Is that…?” the astronaut began.
“A mana beacon,” Flashpoint confirmed. “Don’t let them take it from you. I’ll always be able to locate you with that.”
Ferguson smiled. “Then I look forward to seeing you soon. Farewell until then.”
The A.R.R.R.S. crew waved them off, and then headed inside for a huge celebratory party.
The authorities tried hard to persuade Ferguson to remain in their care for a while longer, but eventually allowed him to leave with Machspeed, so the beacon was not needed. The astronaut was soon back in space in the company of Machspeed, Amelia, Flashpoint, and a couple of technicians on the squad who would be starting the salvage process on the space station. With Ferguson’s guidance, they began extracting equipment that would be of the most value to them. While they were doing that though, the others headed for the shuttle.
Amelia and Machspeed had brought along special cushions designed to help adapt their pony forms to the human seats, and each of them took a position – Machspeed in the commander’s chair on the left, and Amelia in the pilot’s chair on the right. Ferguson hovered in the air above and between them.
“Let me make this perfectly clear before we start,” the astronaut said sternly, “we are not going anywhere until I am reasonably certain that you have a chance of landing this thing in one piece. I know that you are perfectly capable of kicking me out and trying anyway, but you would be crazy to try. I trained in a simulator and a modified Gulfstream jet trainer for a thousand sorties for the best part of two years, but we don’t have either available, so we are going to train the best we can until I am sure that I’ve made real shuttle pilots out of you, no matter how long it takes. Are we understood?”
“Understood, Commander, with the one caveat that we won’t have the luxury of that much time,” Machspeed replied.
“I know. I just don’t want the people who saved my life to lose theirs doing something stupid.”
Thus began weeks of intensive training for Machspeed and Amelia. It was occasionally interrupted by the need to do rescue runs on more Returnee aircraft, and Ferguson had to do training of his own in how to be a pegasus pony when they returned to the ground. They gave him a spare room at their headquarters, and he basically lived and worked with the crew when he wasn’t up in the space station. Every day, each of them steadily improved, but it was Ferguson who got a taste of real progress first.
The astronaut looked genuinely nervous for the first time as he stood between two grinning pegasi. Featherdrop and Sunshower had volunteered to take Ferguson up into the sky for his first experience at cloud-walking. Even though he had been assured multiple times that it was an unconscious reflexive action, and pegasi really and truly could walk on seemingly insubstantial vapour, his lifetime of knowledge and experience was screaming, ‘What the hell am I doing?!’
“Stop sweating, Ryan – we haven’t dropped anyone for quite a while now,” Featherdrop said with a smirk.
Ferguson just glared at the stallion while Sunshower chuckled.
The pegasi hooked forelegs to Ferguson’s and took off into the sky. Despite having seen them fly many times before, it was a different matter being carried into the air by those impossible wings of theirs. He had barely mastered opening and closing his own at will, let alone managed to do anything useful with them. They kept climbing higher and higher, finally passing the lowest of the clouds. They continued onwards though until they reached the top of a fluffy cumulus at a higher level, and they lowered onto its top. Despite his fears, Ferguson did not plummet when they let go of him. He sank down a bit, but it felt much like walking on a trampoline. He stood there in shock for a long moment before he gingerly started stepping once, then a second time. Suddenly he was giddy with glee at the incredible but amazing feat, and he started prancing around like a colt while the other two pegasi watched with grins on their faces.
After giving Ferguson a decent amount of time to enjoy the experience, Sunshower said, “We’d like to try something else while we’re up here. We know that you haven’t been able to access your flight magic yet, but that’s not unusual for a Returnee. We can try something a little daring that might stimulate it though, and at worst could be quite a thrill.”
“Okay, I’m in the mood to try anything right now, so I’ll bite. What is it?”
Sunshower led him over to the edge of the cloud and pointed down. “See that cloud below us? I want you spread your wings and fly down there. Just try gliding, but if you happen to feel the magic, give true flight a try. At worst, nothing will happen and you should have a fairly soft landing on the cloud. We’ll be flying beside you in the case of a real emergency, but I don’t see that happening.”
Ferguson gulped. It was one thing enjoying the feel of a cloud firm under his hooves, but another thing entirely to rely on one to stop his fall. He wasn’t about to balk while the others were watching though. He opened his wings, holding them out like he had been shown. Then he firmed his resolve and jumped off the cloud.
Gravity was still his mistress, and he fell rapidly, but he did seem to sense something with his wings, enough to make some difference to his flight. Although hopelessly small in proportion to his body mass, they did seem to have an undue amount of influence on his descent path, and he managed to come down on his hooves with a fair amount of control. His heart was pounding, but he found himself grinning from ear to ear.
Sunshower and Featherdrop alighted beside him. “Well done,” the mare complimented him. “We’ll have you flying properly in no time.”
“That’s enough for today,” Featherdrop said. “Let’s go back down and you can tell the others what it was like for your first time.”
Ferguson nodded. Yes, the first time, but absolutely not the last!
Amelia and Machspeed completed their latest run-through of procedures on the shuttle with ease. Ferguson nodded in satisfaction before taking a deep breath and making a decision.
“There’s nothing more that I can teach you without a simulator or trainer aircraft. You are as good as you are going to get at flying this shuttle without that experience, and you can still handle things better than I can with hooves. I still don’t recommend taking the risk, but I also know that you’re determined to do so anyway, so I’m giving you the go-ahead to try taking Atlantis back to Earth.”
“Yes!” Amelia cried out as she pumped one foreleg.
“That’s great,” Machspeed added with a bit more self-control. “We’ll make arrangements with the ground team.”
“Where do you plan to land? You do realise that this needs a much longer runway than even a big passenger jet?”
“I do, and I already have that sorted out. Have you heard of Amberley Air Base?”
“Yes – that is one of the emergency alternative landing sites for the space shuttle.”
“I was stationed there for a while when I was in the Royal Australian Air Force. The airfield is used today, although it’s not a military base anymore. In fact they only took advantage of the landing strips as the buildings had long since decayed.”
“The runways would be decayed as well, wouldn’t they?” Ferguson pointed out.
“Yes, but there was a much smaller amount of work that needed to be done to clear the strips of accumulated dirt and vegetation to get them into a semi-useable state, which is more than can be said about any other existing airfield at the moment. When I realised that we were very likely going to be able to bring the shuttle down, I contracted to have the landing strip cleared. It wasn’t as expensive as it could have been because the owners of the airfield plan to take advantage of the reclaimed strip, so they split the cost with me. It also has the advantage of being only about a hundred kilometres from our base.”
“You seem to have this all worked out, so when do you want to do this?”
“I’ll have to talk to the owners of the airfield to ensure that we have a clear run and that the landing beacon we improvised is in position and working. I’ll have some of the team stand by in case of unforeseen circumstances. I’ll have to check the weather situation too. I don’t want to pay some weather pegasi to clear the skies if I don’t need to.”
“At least you have that option. We were always at the mercy of Mother Nature.”
“We try not to muck around with the natural weather unless it gets too extreme, but it certainly comes in handy. Anyway, if everything is fine, I’d like to do this tomorrow.”
Amelia grinned and said, “I’ve started the countdown. It’s gonna be awesome!”
Flashpoint moved the pod into the shuttle’s cargo bay, and the bay doors closed around it. Previous tests had shown that it would fit, although only in one particular way, but to the satisfaction of all including Ferguson.
“How do you plan to secure it?” the astronaut asked.
“We’re not,” Flashpoint replied.
“That could cause problems during manoeuvres,” he replied with a scowl.
“Not as big a problem as securing it would. If we did that, it would essentially become part of the shuttle, and my teleportation power would try to ’port it all, and I simply can’t move that much tonnage. It has to remain a discrete vessel, or it won’t be of any use to us in an emergency.”
“Ah, I see your point. Well, at least I don’t have to concern myself with incidental damage, and our landing manoeuvres will hopefully be relatively mild. You don’t know how reassuring I find it that we have a way out if things go wrong, and I don’t mind saying that if anything can go wrong, it will with this inexperienced crew.”
“Ryan, we appreciate your concern, but there isn’t a single one of us that doesn’t enjoy the calculated risks that we take in our line of business. And frankly, you wouldn’t be an astronaut if you didn’t feel the same way.”
Ferguson grimaced. “You got me there, Flashpoint. Okay, we’re coming up on departure time. We’d better take our positions.”
It was not long before Machspeed and Amelia closed off the access tube and were strapped into their chairs, with Machspeed taking the commander’s seat. Ferguson was at the aft flight deck side control panel chair, while Flashpoint had the Mission Specialist’s chair behind and centre of the pilots.
“Everypony strapped in?” Machspeed asked.
When everyone acknowledged, Flashpoint spoke up. “Final reminder, guys – if we have to ’port out of here, make sure you take off your belts immediately. I’ll come forward and hook my arms around Machspeed and Amelia, and Ryan grabs onto me so that we’re all one easily teleportable unit. That will enable us to use the pod to make our escape in a timely manner.”
They all soberly acknowledged her.
“Right – let’s go!” Machspeed said.
They disengaged from the space station, slowly drifting away until they fired the RCS thrusters to turn the shuttle until it was travelling tail first. At the calculated moment, they then fired the OMS engines to start the process of slowing down from orbital speeds, and they began their fall back to Earth. It took them about twenty-five minutes to reach the upper atmosphere, during which time the RCS thrusters changed their attitude once again so that they were travelling nose-first and the bottom of the shuttle would face the atmosphere at an angle of about forty degrees. They then burned the remainder of the fuel in the forward Reaction Control Stabiliser as a safety precaution as that area got the hottest during re-entry.
Ferguson said, “Okay, we’ve done the easy part. Remember, we won’t be so much flying as much as falling with style. You need to adjust your deorbit burn and angle exactly, a few seconds off and we are dead. It’s like flying a razor blade.”
“We remember, Commander. Prepare for re-entry!”
It wasn’t long before the first wisps of atmosphere started making their presence known, and it quickly built up to a steady vibration. They plunged into the atmosphere at twenty-five times the speed of sound, and pink and orange-hued plasma streamed past the windows. This was both exciting and nerve-wracking as they waited for several very long minutes while the shuttle killed its enormous speed by atmospheric drag and its forty degree attitude was maintained with the help of the aft steering jets. Abruptly, re-entry was over, and the shuttle started flying like an airplane. At this point, the computer took over, making a series of S-shaped banking turns to slow its descent speed as it began its final approach to the runway.
Amelia got onto the radio. Now that they had passed the radio black-out due to the hot ionised gas produced during re-entry, it was time to let the ground crew know that they were coming. “Amberley Air Control, this is Atlantis – are you receiving? Over.”
The voice that replied was obviously extremely excited even as it struggled to remain professional. “Atlantis, we hear you. Sweet heavens, you did it! Over.”
“Not quite yet, Amberley. Still gotta land this bird. Is everything clear? Over.”
“Field is completely clear, and we have emergency equipment on stand-by. You may land when ready. Over.”
“We’re a giant glider, Amberley – we’re going to land whether we’re ready or not. See you soon. Atlantis out.”
To Machspeed’s relief, they picked up the landing beacon when they were still over two hundred kilometres away and at an altitude of 150,000 feet. That was fairly critical to a safe landing. When they were forty kilometres away, the computer surrendered control, and manual flight devolved onto Machspeed. With only the occasional prompting from Ferguson, Machspeed flew the shuttle around an imaginary cylinder about five and a half kilometres wide to line the shuttle up with the runway and drop the altitude. During the final approach, he steepened the angle of descent to minus twenty degrees, which was far steeper than that of a commercial airliner – almost seven times. He had to fight his instincts a lot at this time, and this was where his lack of real training was going to hurt the most.
When they reached 2,000 feet above ground, Machspeed pulled up the nose to slow the rate of descent, but they were still approaching the runway fifty percent faster than a passenger jet. Amelia deployed the landing gear, and after a few very tense moments, the shuttle touched down. Machspeed applied the brakes, and they deployed the parachute and speed-brake on the tail. The shuttle rumbled and jolted down the hastily prepared runway, coming to a stop about three quarters down its length.
For a long moment, there was silence on board before Machspeed and Amelia both started yelling in excitement, the tension of the landing evaporating into sheer exultation. The whipped off their seat belts and climbed out of their chairs to hug and pound each other on their backs. Flashpoint and Ferguson joined in and nobody noticed the radio for a couple of minutes.
Finally Machspeed calmed down long enough to notice the Amberley air controller trying to get their attention, and he grabbed the radio. “Amberley – Atlantis here. We’re down and all safe. We’re going to start shutdown procedures now. See you soon. Out!”
It took them about twenty minutes to complete the shutdown procedures, although it wasn’t strictly necessary because Atlantis was never going to fly again, but the shuttle had to cool down and the noxious gases generated during re-entry had to disperse anyway, so it killed time until they could disembark. Of course Flashpoint could have simply teleported them out of there, but where was the fun in that? The moment of triumph came when they opened the hatch to the outside and waved to the ground crew.
For Ferguson, it was a particularly heartfelt moment as he finally had the satisfaction of completing the mission that he had started over three thousand years ago. The Space Shuttle program might now be forever closed, but it had ended on a high note, and that was the best that he could have ever asked for. He did not even notice the shooting-star cutie mark that had appeared on his flanks.
“If you are ever looking for work, look us up,” Machspeed told Ferguson.
“Thanks, Mach, but I have big plans for my new life. I’ll drop around to visit occasionally though.”
“You’ll always be welcome, Ryan, and if you put as much into your new plans as you did as an astronaut, I’m sure you’ll succeed.”
“Then it’s farewell for now,” Machspeed said as he raised his leg to hoof-bump Ferguson.
The former astronaut then turned to Amelia and gave her a hug, then did the same with Flashpoint. “I’ll miss you all. You’ve done so much for me, and I’ll remember this past year as some of the best of my life. Goodbye, my friends!” He then spread his wings and took off, climbing into the sky with confidence, if not terribly gracefully as yet.
Machspeed watched him go for a while before murmuring with a smile, “Safe landings, Spaceman.”
Amelia felt her tension rising as she waited in the back of the airplane. Used primarily to carry cargo, it had very little in the way of amenities for passengers, namely a cushion to sit on until the aircraft got into position. It was not a very comfortable cushion either, but still better than sitting on the cold floor. She eyed the sky through the window, noting the almost total lack of clouds, which matched what the weather pegasi had predicted. That would make her task a lot easier; the really tricky bit was about to happen.
The pilot of the aircraft leaned over in his seat and looked back to Amelia. “We’re almost in position. Better get ready!”
Amelia nodded, relieved to actually be able to do something soon. She turned to her companion and said, “Wish me luck, Beamer.”
Sunbeam raised his leg and hoof-bumped her. “You got it, Amy. Not that you need it.”
Amelia grinned at him. “Hey, I’m good, I know, but I’ll take all the good fortune that I can get.” She got up and moved over to the rear hatch. She made sure that her jacket was zipped up tightly before slipping goggles over her eyes. She then unfastened the hatch and opened it, letting a blast of wind inside, but a firm grip on the handle at the side of the door kept her steady.
After several tense seconds of waiting, a buzzer sounded and a green light flashed. “Geronimo!” she shouted and leapt out of the airplane. “Wahoooooo!” she yelled as she plummeted from the plane several kilometres above the ground. The wind whipped through her mane and forced itself up her nostrils as she grinned in delight at her freefall. Below her was nothing but countryside dotted with small lakes. A field with several small dots that she recognised were cows was the only sign of civilisation… except for the airplane whose course she was rapidly intersecting at a dangerous rate. She angled herself to change direction slightly, and soon she could confirm that it was the Mooney M20 that she was here to rendezvous with. When she judged that the moment was right, she spread her forelegs to the side.
The legs of another pony hooked under hers and slowed down their rate of descent, swinging her back legs down into position for the next manoeuvre. “Perfect timing, Beamer!” Amelia yelled above the wind noise.
“Practice makes perfect, Amy” the pegasus replied.
Having been saved the effort of carrying his companion all the way to the Mooney, Sunbeam was able to put all his energy into matching the aircraft’s considerable speed while carrying Amelia. She reached out a hind leg to the right wing, but it lurched under the weight.
“We’re too far out. Get me closer to the fuselage,” Amelia directed.
Sunbeam obliged, and although the Mooney wobbled a bit, it steadied quickly. Amelia’s horn lit up and unlatched the cabin door. Holding it firmly in the grip of her magical telekinesis, she opened it enough to peer inside at the shocked face of the pilot. With Sunbeam’s assistance, she scrambled inside and closed the door before giving him the OK sign. He waved in acknowledgement before veering off and disappearing from view. Amelia then pulled off her goggles and turned her attention to the pilot.
“G’day! I was just passing by and I thought I’d drop in. Great day for flying, right?” she said cheerfully.
The earth pony stallion stared at her in confusion. “Who…? How…?”
Amelia smacked herself in the head with a hoof. “Silly me – I forgot to introduce myself. I’m Amelia, and I’m from the Aeronautical Returnee Rescue Response Squad. Saw you were in a bit of a pickle, so I thought I’d see if I could help.”
“But… you’re… what are you? What happened to me?”
“I’m a unicorn. Yeah, I’m a magical mythological creature who was just carried here by a pegasus. Mind-blowing, right? It was for me too. As for you, you look like a fairly typical earth pony, and right now I guess you’re kind of freaking out. Well, I’m here to tell you that as ludicrous as this situation is right now, it’s not as bad as you think. You’re not going crazy, and you’re not going to die because you can’t control this aircraft with hooves. Leave the flying to me, and we’ll have a nice conversation while we head for the airport.”
Amelia checked out the instruments with an experienced eye. The autopilot which had done an excellent job of keeping the plane flying straight and level was also taking them away from the airfield, so she switched it off and took full control at the co-pilot position. The GPS was useless without the satellites it needed to operate, but she already knew what course to set to get the plane where she needed.
“What are you doing?” the stallion asked with a touch of panic.
“Please don’t be concerned, sir – I have the plane completely in my control. See the glow around my horn? Magic! No fooling! I am steering us towards the nearest airport so that we can deal with your situation. What’s your name, by the way?”
“Brad Lawson,” he replied reflexively. “And what do you mean by magic?”
“It’s a real thing now, Brad. Unfortunately it’s also why you and I are ponies. Short version: mana – that’s the energy behind magic – burst into our universe. Unfortunately mana is lethal to humans. It’s kind of like being hit by radiation. Anyway, beings from another universe saw our plight coming and used their power to change us all into various species that could survive in a mana-rich environment. However, if all the humans in the world were changed simultaneously, there would be no way we could have coped, and the vast proportion of the population would have died. So they shoved most of us into the time stream and we’ve been popping out of it into the future at various times ever since. Welcome to the 54th Century, Brad.”
Brad stared at her for a very long moment before sighing deeply. “Either I’ve gone completely crazy, or that’s the most unbelievable truth I’ve ever heard.”
Amelia grinned back at him. “Isn’t it, though? Let’s face it – you know that absolutely everything looks normal to you except us, so why would we be an exception in a normal world? No, I’m quite real, and you’re a pony too now. How old are you, Brad?”
“I’m sixty-three; does that matter?”
“Only that you’re now a young stallion again. Every adult human comes back in a healthy, just barely fully-adult body. You’re about twenty-one now. You have a full life ahead of you to enjoy.”
“How am I supposed to enjoy it like this?” he asked bitterly as he waved his hooves.
“I wondered that myself when it happened to me. Know what I was doing? I was the co-pilot of an A380 with a planeload of passengers in my care. The captain freaked out and left it all to me. I wanted to freak out too, but I managed to call for help, and the A-Triple-R Squad got us all down safely. Now I work for them. Do you get that, Brad? I rescue planes for a living! Do I look like a helpless pony to you? No, I’m not, and you won’t be either. Sure, it’ll be difficult at first, and your life is going to change a lot, but it’s nothing that millions of people haven’t done before. Just have a little confidence in yourself, and you’ll do just fine.”
Brad seemed to quietly absorb that information, and he sat in his seat silently for several minutes.
“Are you okay, Brad?” Amelia asked.
He snorted derisively. “No, I’m not, but I’ve stopped freaking out, as you said. I’ve started noticing things though. I can’t see roads or other signs of civilisation around here.”
Amelia shook her head. “You won’t see much because civilisation collapsed and rose and collapsed and rose again over thirty-two centuries. Almost everything human-made has long since decayed and nature has retaken the land. Sure, we’re slowly rebuilding yet again, but not around here yet. There are lots of places that humans tamed that have remained untouched for centuries and reverted to wilderness. If we don’t have another stupid conflict that makes civilisation collapse again, we might build some of those roads once more.”
“So you’re telling me that you still have wars?”
“Yeah. Just because humans were turned into other species didn’t mean that we got any smarter. Still the same ideological differences, and now we can argue over which species are superior too!” Amelia answered with some exasperation.
Surprisingly, Brad laughed. “Now I know that things are virtually normal. Humans are humans no matter what we look like. So – what species are we talking about?”
“Oh, zebras, griffins, minotaurs, yaks, changelings….”
“Yep. In fact many hooved species seem to have a sapient equivalent now. You’ll find it a bit weird if you like milk and you buy it from your neighbourhood, professional dairy cow.”
“Consider me boggled.”
“Oh, I’ve barely begun to boggle you, Brad. Let me tell you….”
For the rest of the journey, Amelia kept up a steady patter of conversation that both informed and amused the Returnee so much that he hardly noticed when they came in for a landing at the airfield. He saw the group of ponies waiting for them there, alongside a couple of the locals who happened to be deer-folk. He turned back to Amelia with a bit of a smile.
“Thanks for the rescue, Amelia. I suppose I have to go find out what my new life is going to be like now.”
“You’re welcome, Brad. I’m confident that you’ll do okay. There’s always a place for ponies who try.” She leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. “Good luck.”
Machspeed had approached the pilot’s side and opened the door. He assisted Brad out with his telekinesis, and then passed him into the care of the deer.
Meanwhile, Sunbeam flapped over to Amelia’s side of the plane and waited until Amelia let herself out of the Mooney. “I saw that kiss,” he said reprovingly.
“Are you jealous, Beamer?” Amelia replied coyly.
“Bitterly!” he said before sweeping her up in his wings and giving her a passionate kiss.
Amelia returned it willingly and with equal fervour. More and more often lately, she had been thinking of asking him if he wanted to be her mate. It amused and dismayed her that it was she who was getting cold feet… or hooves… over that decision, because she was almost certain that Sunbeam was only waiting for her to ask. Silly business this modern custom that mares were supposed to do the proposing!
“Well, if you’re done celebrating a successful mission, it’s time to get back to base,” Machspeed’s voice came from beside them.
Amelia broke apart from Sunbeam with her usual happy smile on her face. “Oh, we’re far from finished celebrating, Mach.”
The unicorn stallion laughed. “Okay, but save it until we’re back home. Flashpoint won’t wait for you to stop snogging.”
They all shared a good-humoured chuckle before Flashpoint teleported them back to base.
Amelia’s early days at the Aeronautical Returnee Rescue Response Squad had been a little uncertain. Learning how to use her new body properly had taken about average for a Returnee, but that had not been enough for her. She had come back as a unicorn, and it was her intention to be as proficient with the magic that came with that species as was possible. While she had not been granted the wings of a pegasus, she still dreamed of flying, and the best way to fulfil that dream was to be proficient with telekinesis. Therefore she had practiced long and hard before she tracked down the office of the A-Triple-R and boldly asked for a job. She had been made to feel welcome, and seeing that she was the only fully qualified pilot besides Machspeed, also a valuable asset. Nobody had warned her about the long intervals that sometimes happened between rescues though, and sitting around doing nothing preyed on her insecurities because she felt that she was being a dead weight while not engaged in real work.
Sunbeam saw her moping around one day and he decided to do something about it. Stepping up to Amelia, he clucked his tongue in mock dismay. “Is there anything more pathetic than a pilot out of her natural element?”
Amelia barely glanced at him. “At least you can fly whenever you want to,” she grumped.
“Yep. Nothing like the open sky with the wind in your wings, sun on your back, and clouds beneath your hooves,” he said enthusiastically. “Only one thing could make it better.”
“Isn’t that enough for you?” she replied with a hint of envy. She sighed. “Okay, I’ll bite – what would make it better?”
He gave her a dazzling grin. “Doing it in the company of a gorgeous mare, of course.”
Amelia’s right eyebrow rose and she gave him a deadpan look. “If you’re trying to hit on me, you’re hardly making a case for yourself. Last I looked, I hadn’t grown any wings yet.”
Sunbeam’s smile never faltered. “One reason I’m on the team is that I’m a heavy lifter. If you’re game, I could give you the ride of a lifetime.”
“You’ll carry me?” Amelia was a little shocked at the proposal. As much as she loved flying, the thought of being supported by nothing but a magically-powered winged pony was enough to make her a little nervous.
“It’s my specialty,” he replied confidently. “So, as I just asked, are you game?”
Amelia’s self-confidence reasserted itself, and she returned his grin. “Okay, Beamer, you’re on. But if you drop me, I’m coming back to haunt you!”
“Fair enough, but what’s this ‘Beamer’ bit?”
“A hangover from my past. Get used to it. Now – less talk, more action!”
Sunbeam fetched his goggles and gave Amelia a spare pair before they went outside. The stallion settled down on the grass and instructed Amelia to make herself as comfortable on his back as she could without obstructing his wings. He then stood back up, spread those wings, and with a powerful flap, took off.
“Wahooooo!” Amelia yelled in excitement, nearly deafening Sunbeam as she practically shouted in his ear.
Sunbeam winced and his ear folded down to soften the abuse, but he continued his climb up to the clouds.
It was a mostly clear day, and only a few fluffy cumulus clouds dotted the sky, so Amelia had a great view, one that was better than any she had while confined to a cockpit. She quickly forgot about being supported solely by an aerodynamically impossible mythical species, and she relaxed her grip on the pony as she enjoyed the ride.
Sunbeam took her for an extended tour of the area before lifting them up above a cloud and lowering himself to its tenuous surface. Amelia had heard that pegasi could walk on clouds, but had never actually witnessed it, and her pre-Event logic told her that it was impossible. Nevertheless he came to a springy halt just like he had stepped onto a trampoline.
Amelia laughed with the absurdity of it. “I know that it’s because of magic that you can do this, but it still boggles my mind. I suppose I can’t do that also?”
Sunbeam angled his head so he could look at her over his shoulder. “Nope. Your first step would be your last, so please don’t try. Aside from not getting the cloud-walking experience, have you been enjoying the ride?”
“Very much so. I really needed this.”
“Want to do it more often?”
“You are hitting on me, aren’t you?” Amelia said with a smirk.
“I suppose I am. The question still stands,” Sunbeam replied unabashed.
Amelia thought about it for a bit. When she had started her rehabilitation, she had been uncomfortable with the thought of any kind of relationship with ponies who had never known what it was like to have been a human. She had still thought of herself as one who had been put into a foreign body. It had taken her a while to get over her prejudices and stop the sensation of alien-ness that she got whenever a pony tried to get friendly with her. Her buoyant nature eventually overcame those feelings for the most part, but nevertheless it was a big step from a friend to a boyfriend. Still – a boyfriend who could fly!
“Okay, Beamer, I’m game.”
“Awesome! Hang on, Amelia – I feel like a little celebration is in order.”
Sunbeam dived off the edge of the cloud, and Amelia hugged the pegasus tightly. They hurtled towards the ground until he pulled up hard like a rollercoaster. Amelia squealed in delighted terror before yelling, “Again!”
A few loops and rolls later, they came down for a landing in the yard of the A.R.R.R.S. headquarters. Sunbeam was panting hard from the exertion, but still grinning, and Amelia’s smile matched his. She was buzzing from the adrenaline rush as she climbed off his back. She then leaned over and kissed him on the cheek.
“Thanks, Beamer. I feel a lot better.”
“You’re welcome, Amelia.”
“Wanna go out for dinner? My treat?”
“I’ve worked up quite an appetite; can you afford to feed me?”
Amelia laughed. “I think I’ll manage.”
That dinner date was the first of many since then. Amelia had at last met someone who was not only interested in her as a person, but also shared her passion for flying. Together they perfected the techniques for light aircraft interception and rescue, and Machspeed was happy to pass on the responsibility for those to them. Between the light aircraft, the occasional passenger jet, and her relationship with Sunbeam, Amelia was more than happy with her new life.
Amelia hung on grimly as the aircraft bounced in the turbulence. Unlike the last time, the weather was not cooperating. High winds and low clouds were going to make this operation a lot more difficult. She had confidence in the pilot’s ability to get her and Sunbeam to the right location, but spotting their target was not going to be easy under these conditions. It had been a fluke that it had been spotted at all in the first place.
At last the pilot indicated that they were in the right area, and Amelia and Sunbeam got up to take position at the door, putting their goggles on before grabbing a support once more. The airplane was a different model from last time, and not really well suited to this sort of operation, but in their business, they took what they could get locally. Another one of the crew held open the door for Amelia as she braced herself in the doorway in preparation to jumping.
“Anyone spot our target?” she asked.
The crew pony shook her head. “Sorry, no. The pilot is circling around for another pass.”
That was worrying as the rogue airplane could easily slip away unnoticed. Amelia stared out of the open doorway, hoping to spot their target against the backdrop of the unbroken jungle below.
Suddenly the pilot shouted, “Portside! I caught a glimpse. Go! Go!”
Amelia jumped without hesitation, and she assumed her normal skydive position. She looked about for the airplane, but failed to spot it. Far sooner than normal, she felt Sunbeam catch her, slowing her fall.
“I can’t let you go further until we spot the Returnee,” he shouted above the wind. “You look left, and I’ll look right.”
For several long, tense moments, neither found anything until Amelia spotted a brief reflection of sunlight. “There!” she shouted, pointing with her left hoof.
“Oh, crud,” Sunbeam said when he spotted what Amelia was pointing at. “This ain’t gonna be easy.”
The aircraft was flying almost directly away from them, and Sunbeam had to pour his maximum effort into catching up to it before Amelia could begin boarding. The airplane was a Cessna 182, and significantly more awkward to board than the Mooney had been. Nevertheless, with due care, Amelia eventually scrambled into the empty co-pilot’s seat. At least it was empty, unlike some previous rescues. This job had been hard enough already without that added complication. She signalled to Sunbeam that she was okay, and he nodded in acknowledgement before veering off to tiredly return to the airfield where he would await her.
Amelia immediately turned to the pilot to begin her usual reassuring patter. “Hi there! Not the best weather for flying today, so I thought I’d pop in for a chat instead.”
The pilot did not respond, and Amelia’s heart sank a little as she looked him over closely. Just like the day she had been Returned, the pilot looked to be near catatonic just like the A380 captain had been. Unlike that captain, this pilot had turned into a stag rather than a diamond dog, and one with quite an impressive rack also. Inside the cramped quarters of the Cessna, those antlers were a major liability, jamming up against the upper fuselage. She noticed that he was sweating profusely, and foaming a little at the muzzle. Worst were the eyes, with the pupils fully dilated and staring straight ahead.
“Sir, are you alright? I’m here to help, okay? I’m a pilot with a rescue squad for people in your predicament, and I assure you that we’re going to get you down safely, and sort out things for you.”
There was still no response, and Amelia sighed. “Sir, I’m going to take control now. I’ll be taking us back to the nearest airport.” She could not afford any more time trying to get the pilot calmed down. One of the reasons that finding the airplane had been a matter of urgency was that the autopilot was taking it into the mountains, and she had to start circling back immediately. She put her hooves on the steering, flicked off the autopilot, and began a course change.
Suddenly the stag started yelling and thrashing around in panic, knocking Amelia and causing the plane to veer dangerously. She regained control even as she desperately pleaded with him to calm down, but he seemed deaf to her. The thrashing only got worse, and he hit her again with a hoof to the cheek. She cried out in pain and felt a trickle of blood start dripping off her fur. She reached out with her telekinesis to restrain the flailing limbs, and was momentarily successful until his head came around and his antler smashed into her face. Blackness claimed her.
. . .
She regained consciousness just soon enough to see a tree-covered mountaintop in front of her. The airplane was diving out of control, and she grabbed desperately for the controls, trying to change direction and regain height, but it was far too late. The Cessna brushed through the first of the treetops before getting tangled and flipping. It crashed through the branches while slamming the occupants around the cabin. Amelia lost consciousness for a second time.
A very weary Sunbeam joined Machspeed and Flashpoint at the airfield, coming to a heavy landing beside the unicorns.
“That was not fun,” he declared as he folded his wings.
“The wind has picked up a lot since you left,” Machspeed commented.
“Yeah, and I was battling it most of the way. I actually expected Amelia to pass me on the way back.” Sunbeam turned to look back the way he had come. “That’s odd – I don’t see her at all.”
Flashpoint lowered the binoculars that she had been using. “Neither can I. Are you sure everything went okay?”
Sunbeam frowned in thought. “It wasn’t an easy job finding and getting to the aircraft, but Amelia got inside without too much trouble and gave me the sign that I could go. Nothing unusual really.”
“She may have had a bit of trouble with getting cooperation from the pilot,” Machspeed suggested. “It’s not as if we haven’t run into that before.”
Flashpoint shook her head. “Amelia has dealt with those before. Besides, she knows she doesn’t have the luxury of time. That windstorm is getting very close.” She pointed to the squall line of clouds on the horizon.
Sunbeam shuddered. “No need to remind me; my weather sense has been bugging me since we got here.” He scanned the skies again, his pegasus far-sight picking out distant birds and wind-blown debris, but nary a sign of the Cessna. “I don’t like this. Maybe Amelia has radioed in a message?” He looked hopefully at Machspeed.
Machspeed levitated a walkie-talkie to his muzzle. “A-Triple-R Squad to Coldstream Tower.”
“Coldstream Tower. What’s up, Machspeed? Over.”
“Have you received any communications from Amelia? Over.”
“That’s a negative. Over.”
“Thanks, Coldstream Tower. Out.” Machspeed looked at Sunbeam with real concern on his face.
“That’s it – I’m going back to look for her!” Sunbeam spread his wings to take off.
“You’re too tired, and that storm is coming soon!” Flashpoint protested.
“You think that matters now?” Sunbeam snarled and took off.
Machspeed groaned. “I hope we haven’t just had our problems doubled. Flashpoint, I think you had better go back to base and get some of the back-up crew. I’m hoping for the best, but I want to be prepared for the worst.”
With a nod of agreement, Flashpoint passed the binoculars to Machspeed and then teleported out.
Machspeed raised the binoculars to his eyes and watched Sunbeam making good speed back to where he had left Amelia. He silently cursed himself for not insisting that the drop-plane hang around to observe despite the crew’s concerns about the weather. There was only so much a lone pegasus could do, even one as dedicated as Sunbeam.
Amelia was almost surprised to regain consciousness a second time, even if it was accompanied by a killer headache. She tried to get her bearings, but it took a long time for it to get through her muzzy head that she seemed to be upside down, with all sorts of objects strewn over her. Some she recognised as parts belonging to the aircraft, but there was also a tree branch pinning her to the seat. She tried to push it aside with her forelegs, only to scream in agony as her right leg sent a stab of acute pain through her. Tears flooded her eyes as she tried to push back the pain. With a shuddering breath, she tried another tack, this time using her horn, only to have agony flare in her head. Her head swam and she nearly blacked out again. She gave herself a longer break to try to recover before reaching up with her left leg and gingerly touch her horn with her hoof. She slid it along the length of the magic organ before sighing in relief.
“At least it isn’t broken,” she murmured. “Might be cracked, but it’ll heal. No magic though for now. Can’t concentrate on telekinesis with that sort of pain.”
Talking made her cough, and suddenly she realised that something was irritating her throat. She sniffed and her eyes widened in alarm. Smoke! If the wreck caught fire, she could be killed within minutes. She started pushing frantically at the branch with her good leg, managing to wriggle loose. She managed to get into a position where she could see the pilot and poked him to see if he would respond.
“Sir! Are you alri…?” Her voice died as she got a good look at his face. She looked away in a hurry, aware that the death stare was nevertheless burned into her memory. She shuddered. She had never had to look at a dead person before; even her parents had still been alive pre-Event. This was not the best of times to try to have to cope with it, but if she did not act quickly, she might soon join him.
One look at the door told her that it was never going to open, and small as she was, she was not going to squeeze through the shattered and crushed window either. How in hell had she survived this so far? Ponies had to be a lot tougher than humans. Ponies could also do one other thing well, she realised. She manoeuvred herself as best that she could without the use of her right leg, braced herself, and bucked with all her strength. The warped door moved a little, and a second buck was accompanied by the shriek of tortured metal as it came free of the rest of the wrecked aircraft. By now, the smoke had thickened and she broke into a fit of coughing as she tried to extricate herself from the Cessna. There was a ‘whump’ as she heard fuel suddenly ignite, and she frantically hastened her efforts, trying to ignore the pain in her right leg. Pain was good because it meant she was still alive, and that was something that she intended keep being. She felt jagged metal tear her hide down her left side as she squeezed out into the open, and she fell onto open ground at last, jarring her injured leg. She screamed in agony, but did not pause any longer than it took her to pull herself up onto her three remaining good legs and start hobbling away from the Cessna.
When she judged that she could afford to stop, she looked back at the wreckage. Both wings had been torn off, and she could only see one of them back through the gap they had torn through the trees. Other pieces were strewn about the area, some lying on the surrounding vegetation. Smoke was pouring from the engine compartment, and she could even see flames now. As she watched, she saw the surrounding bushes catch alight, and she recognised a new danger. The blustery wind that she had been ignoring up until now was fanning the flames, and she was now in peril of being caught up in a forest fire. She turned away from the destroyed aircraft and started limping away as fast as she could, hopefully in the upwind direction. The fickle nature of the wind made it difficult to discern, and unspoilt forest terrain limited her choices. She accidentally set her injured leg down on the ground several times while trying to negotiate the difficult path, making her stumble and cry out with the pain before forcing herself to continue. Eventually she collapsed in near exhaustion onto a soft mound of mouldering leaves, panting heavily from the exertion.
Amelia knew that if she hoped for a search party to find her easily, she should stick close to the wreck, but she could not afford to hang around the area while the fire burned. She knew that a windstorm was due to pass through soon, and the wind direction could change at any moment. The blustery breeze that whipped through the canopy was just a foretaste of what was to come. She was still in great danger, and she could not afford to rest for long. She did take the opportunity to look at her bad leg though. Gingerly touching it with her left hoof, she tried to determine how bad it was. The pain was awful, but she didn’t think it was completely snapped. She was not going to be able to use it anytime soon though. She then looked over the rest of herself after that, noting the bloody gash down her side that was still weeping in places, but did not seem life-threatening. A grand collection of scrapes and bruises seemed to be the worst of the rest, although she had a hoof-sized chunk of fur scraped or ripped out of one spot on her flank. She ached all over, but she had to ignore that. She struggled to three hooves again, and resumed her trek towards safety.
Twice she changed her mind as to the direction that she needed to head when smoke started carrying to her. Once she had to retrace her steps when she realised that she had entered a gully that was too steep to exit. She carried on with grim determination, aware that fire could travel frighteningly fast, and at the speed that she could currently move, no amount of distance that she could travel in her current condition would be enough to assure her safety. Progress was beginning to get harder though because the light was fading. The rescue had started in the late afternoon, and the sun was already setting. The thick forest canopy blocked much of the available light, and soon she would have to find some form of shelter because she would not be able to see where she was going.
The gloom was her undoing. Suddenly her left hoof did not encounter a solid surface as she had expected, and she pitched forward into the crevasse that had been hidden in shadow. She bounced off the side of the gully, a rock slamming painfully into her ribs along the way. Pain flared in her right leg as she tumbled helplessly, before she reached the bottom and slammed her head into the stony floor, abusing her horn once more. Amelia groaned as her vision went black and she lost consciousness again.
Sunbeam did not need to fight the wind as he returned to the area where they had encountered the Cessna, but because he was still tired, he allowed the breeze to do some of the work for him. Nevertheless he made good time and immediately started looking for clues. The worsening weather had brought the cloud ceiling down which meant that he could not get as high as he wished to look over the area, but it was still better than what the oncoming squalls promised. For many frustrating minutes, even his keen sight was unable to detect a clue as to the whereabouts of Amelia and the Cessna. It was with a mixture of relief and fear that he eventually spotted a plume of smoke coming from a distant mountainside.
“Didn’t Amelia get to turn at all?” Sunbeam muttered as he pumped his wings hard to check it out.
The pegasus did not even get halfway to the site before a change made him go cold with fear. Fire! With the dry conditions lately, the forest would burn easily. If Amelia was still alive in a plane wreck, that could kill her. He redoubled his efforts to get there, but by the time he arrived, the flames had taken a strong hold on the vegetation, and he could not get close enough. He was able to confirm that it was indeed the missing Cessna though, so he diced with danger to search the proximity of the crash site. He ignored the possibility of Amelia still being in the wreckage because if she had survived the impact, the fire would have killed her by now. He shuddered at that thought and pushed it aside. No! She had to be alive still, and he would find her. But where would she be?
‘Amelia is smart – she would know to go upwind of the fire. But what if she had gotten out of the wreck before the fire started and she got trapped on the downwind side? I can’t afford to ignore that possibility.’
Sunbeam started orbits of the crash site, staying just ahead of the fire front, hoping that Amelia was on the upwind side, but prepared to make a risky rescue if she was on the downwind side. The thick canopy was making that job exceedingly difficult though, and he had to keep low not only to try to see through it, but also in the hope that she would hear him yelling her name at the top of his voice. Occasionally he would get a lungful of smoke which sent him into a coughing fit, hampering his flying, but he persisted. He neither heard nor saw anything though, and the fire grew so bad that he had to abandon searching in that direction. Instead he concentrated on crisscrossing the downwind side with ever-widening arcs, straining to see in the growing darkness. By this time, more light was coming from the firelight that was being reflected off the clouds than the sun which had just set. He was getting extremely tired too, but he refused to give up.
“AMELIA! I WILL FIND YOU!” he screamed at the forest.
It would have broken his heart to realise that he had passed over Amelia’s unconscious form mere moments before.
Sunbeam was still trying to search by firelight when two teammates found the exhausted pegasus staggering through the air, barely clearing the treetops. Fairwind was carrying Flashpoint on her back, the unicorn hanging on grimly to the pegasus mare who clearly had been pushing herself hard to carry her boss there. Sunbeam was the one who was supposed to do the heavy lifting, but every team member had to be adaptable. Her keener sight enabled her to pick up Sunbeam first, and she swerved to bring them close.
Flashpoint called out, “Did you find anything, Sunbeam?”
Sunbeam shook his head. “I found the crash site, but no sign of Amelia.”
“I’m calling off the search. It’s too dark and dangerous. The squall front is here, and that will change the direction of the fire.”
“I can’t go without Amelia!”
“I’m ordering you to come back to base with us, Sunbeam.”
“No, I can’t give up yet!” the stallion protested.
“Sorry, but I insist.” Flashpoint nudged Fairwind who brought them close enough for the unicorn to reach out and touch Sunbeam. Her horn flared, and they teleported away from the scene.
Opening her eyes barely relieved the blackness for Amelia. Very little light penetrated the trees and down into the gully where she had fallen. She considered herself lucky that she had regained consciousness at all considering the abuse that her head had been getting lately. The headache was terrible, but she was aware of some extra aches and pains now. A very cautious attempt at trying to use magic quickly told her that it still was not an option. Her injured leg throbbed, but because she was on her back, at least it was not getting any more aggravation for the moment. The same could not be said for the ribs on her left side because they felt as if they had been punched in. Merely breathing was painful, but at least not agonising. She shivered violently from a cold chill that was seeping into her left flank and hind leg, and she realised that there was a small stream of water flowing past them, robbing her of body heat.
Amelia struggled to reposition herself, succeeding only in causing herself more pain. She stopped to let the pain subside before she more cautiously tried to ascertain her situation. She seemed to be stuck between two rocks, and it would take some effort to get out. It would have helped a lot if she could only see! Still, if she pushed there…
“Aarrrgh!” she screamed. Amidst all the aches and pains, she had forgotten that her right foreleg might be broken. She had very quickly been reminded. She tried with the other leg, but it did not have the leverage needed. She gritted her teeth and tried to ignore the pain as she attempted to wriggle out of the trap, but moaned as tears of pain quickly made her cheeks sodden. She slumped back, defeated.
“What a stupid way to die,” she told the uncaring darkness. “At least death by fire would have been over quickly, but no, you had to have the last laugh on me. I can see the newspapers now – ‘Daredevil Pilot Found Dead in a Ditch’. So ends the short career of a human turned unicorn.” She chuckled humourlessly before bursting into self-pitying tears. Helplessness had finally shredded her self-confident demeanour, and she wailed piteously into night.
The worst part was the waiting as her body slowly succumbed to the hypothermia. She endured some more pain trying to generate some warmth by moving her limbs, but it was a battle that she was losing by inches. Slowly, the darkness was relieved as dawn approached, and she got her first dim look at the boulder strewn gully that had trapped her. She was pretty well concealed between a couple of the larger ones, and she realised that she might be hidden from the sight of any searchers.
“Heh! Add ‘Body never found’ to my obituary. Well, if they can’t see me, they can bloody well hear me instead!” She took a deep breath, ignoring the stab of pain in her ribs, and then let it all out in one loud, “HELP!”
Amelia did not know when the searchers would come, but she was certain that they would. It might be too soon to start yelling, but it was a whole lot better than not doing anything at all. She waited a while before yelling again. And again. And again. And again….
It started raining, adding to her misery, but she kept yelling. As long as there was breath in her body, she was determined to call for help. She soon realised that might be less time than she had initially thought because the small stream was starting to swell with the run-off from the rain. She could see how water had eroded the gully, and that was easily above the level of her head. She wondered if drowning was a better way to go than burning to a crisp. At least the searchers would be able to stop worrying about the fire. She kept screaming for help as the water crept higher.
For a moment, Amelia thought that she was imagining things, but she screamed for help again.
“I hear you! I’m on my way!” came the faint voice again.
The voice was distant but it was real! “Over here!” she yelled.
“Keep calling so I can find you!” the voice replied, sounding a little nearer.
She kept calling out, and the male (judging solely by the voice) closed the gap. Suddenly a shadow cut the meagre light as a pony form eclipsed the sky. For the first time she had a face to match with the voice, but it was not one that she was familiar with. She nearly burst into tears again when she realised that apparently she was not going to die after all…. Why was he hesitating?
The earth pony stallion seemed to be staring in shock at her. Eventually he said, “My God, it’s happened to you too?”
“What are you talking about?” Amelia asked a tad shrilly. “Get me out of here, please!”
The stallion shook his head as if to clear his thoughts. “Right. Hang in there. I just have to figure out how.” He very gingerly stretched out a foreleg down to a boulder, testing its purchase on its surface before daring to bring the other to join it. He pushed off from the bank of the gully to shakily stand on the rock before making his way further down in the same manner. He then reach down with one leg and attempted to grab Amelia’s right foreleg.
Amelia screamed in agony and yelled, “Other leg! Other leg!”
That leg was a bit harder for the stallion to reach, but he managed to awkwardly hook his hoof about hers and hauled upwards. He might have looked clumsy, but there was no mistaking the earth pony strength behind that pull. Pain jabbed at Amelia from many sides, but she was lifted out of the cold water and into a position where she could get her hind legs underneath her again. She used all her remaining strength to jump up onto the boulder beside her rescuer. She very nearly toppled back into the crevice, but he grabbed her around her barrel and steadied her.
“Careful! You don’t want to fall back into that again,” the stallion said.
“I’ve b-been stuck in th-there f-f-for hours – b-believe m-me, I have n-no intention of g-going back.”
“Can you get back onto the bank by yourself?”
Amelia shivered harder now that her wet fur was exposed to the chill morning air. “L-let m-me g-get a b-bit of m-my strength b-back f-f-first.”
The stallion brought his body close against hers, and she felt his warmth slowly penetrate her hide. “I haven’t got a blanket or anything, but you can warm up next to me as much as you need.”
“Th-thanks,” she replied through chattering teeth. “Wh-where’s th-the r-rest of th-the s-s-searchers?”
“What searchers? I’ve been stuck in this forest for days since this craziness happened to us. I just came to the stream to have a drink when I heard you calling for help.”
Amelia stared at him in puzzlement. “Y-you w-were l-lost in th-the f-f-forest?”
The stallion snorted and replied, “More like magically appeared in it. One moment I’m working in the west paddock, and the next moment I’m in this forest and I look like this.” His right hoof gestured towards the rest of his body. “I guess the same happened to you.”
Amelia’s eyes widened in sudden realisation. “Y-you’re a R-returnnee!”
Amelia gritted her teeth to try to stop the stuttering. “A Returnee,” she repeated. “How… many… days?”
It was the earth pony’s turn to be puzzled. “Same as you, I suppose – four days. Five if you count this morning.”
Amelia knew that he was in for a big shock, but she was not quite ready to ease him into his new world while she was in this condition. “I th-think I c-can make it n-now,” she said.
She took a deep breath, and the stallion steadied her as she sized up the gap. It was not a big one, but with one leg out of action and the rest of her body feeling abused, she had no intention of being overconfident. She leapt and staggered upon landing, but remained on her three good hooves without falling back into the gully. She watched as the earth pony hesitantly copied her actions. Now she knew why he was so clumsy – he’d barely had enough time to learn how to walk in his new body, let alone do anything athletic.
“Now what?” he asked.
“F-first n-names. I’m Am-melia. Wh-what’s y-yours?”
“My name’s Kurt – Kurt Jorgensson. Good to meet you, Amelia. It’s been pretty lonely out here by myself. My wife must be worried sick about me by now.”
Amelia sighed. Telling a Returnee that they were never going to see their loved ones again was always the hardest part of the job. She decided to put it off just a bit longer. “L-let’s w-walk, K-kurt. I n-need to w-warm up.”
“Good idea – it’s pretty chilly this morning. Strange weather we’ve been having since this weirdness happened. Which way should we go?”
Amelia suddenly was struck by uncertainty. Ideally she should try to get back to the plane wreck, but she did not have a clue which direction it was after last night’s events. She could not even see the sun through the canopy to tell what direction was which! She had to get warm though, and there was only one choice – follow the stream. “Th-this w-way,” she said, limping in her chosen direction.
Kurt followed quietly for a while. Amelia was grateful that she did not have to talk while she was still shivering. Eventually her exertions brought her body temperature back up and the shivering stopped. She continued onwards until she called a stop because she was tiring quickly due to her injuries.
“How are you holding up?” Kurt asked.
“It seems I’ll live, thanks to you. I really need to see a doctor, especially about this leg, but I suspect that there’s no permanent damage, although I’m a bit concerned about my horn. Does it look damaged to you?”
Kurt stared at her horn for a moment before replying, “It looks a bit chipped, but otherwise okay. What’s with that anyway? I don’t have a horn on my forehead.”
“That’s because you’re an earth pony and I’m a unicorn.”
“A unicorn? Pull the other one!”
Amelia sighed again. It was time to tell Kurt the strangest of truths. She wondered how he was going to react. “Tell me, Kurt – do you believe in magic?”
Sunbeam had been making a nuisance of himself, insisting that they get back to the crash site as soon as possible in spite of the fact that it was still dark. Machspeed and Flashpoint were tolerant of his urgings, understanding his relationship with Amelia, but they had the safety of the rest of the team to worry about. Sunbeam had no way of getting to the site without Flashpoint teleporting him there, so he forced himself to be patient for several minutes before bugging them again.
“Now?” he asked for the twentieth time.
Flashpoint nodded. “Yes, now,” she replied to his immense relief. “Everyone gather around for the ’port.”
Every pegasus in the squad was present, which was only five, but they had made arrangements for some of the local pegasi to join the search when the squad got there. Flashpoint climbed onto Sunbeam’s back and the others stretched out a wing to make contact with her.
“Okay, I’ll be bringing us in high over the crash site, so be ready to start flying the moment we arrive,” Flashpoint reminded them. Her horn lit up and they disappeared from the A.R.R.R.S headquarters.
They reappeared above the forest just as the sun peeked over the horizon. Of course the forest itself was still deep in shadow, but the burn scar left a vast area laid bare. It had been hoped that Amelia might be easily found there, but they could see no sign of the mare. The fire had apparently been extinguished by the heavy rain, so Flashpoint considered it safe to investigate the wreckage, and she had Sunbeam set her down next to it. Machspeed joined her, climbing off his pegasus steed. They each went over to one side of the plane and looked inside the tangled burnt-out mess.
“That’s a body,” Machspeed pointed out.
Flashpoint queasily agreed.
“But it looks like it’s on the pilot’s side, not the passenger side that Amelia would have taken.”
“That’s a bit reassuring at least.” Flashpoint turned to the waiting pegasi. “It looks like Amelia made it out alive, so we’re not wasting our time. Go!”
Sunbeam needed no urging. His one fear had been that Amelia had been in the burning wreck all along. Now his hopes soared again. He headed in the direction that his instincts told him that Amelia would have fled the fire. The rest of the pegasi could cover the other areas, but he intended to be the one to find his marefriend.
Every Returnee reacted differently, and Amelia watched Kurt carefully for his. He had been sceptical as she had begun her explanation, but he had grown quieter and quieter until he became like he was now – silently staring at nothing, numbed by the reality. Eventually he spoke with his voice barely more than a whisper.
“So, I’m never going to see Anna or my two sons again?”
“I’m so sorry, but as I said, it’s almost certain that they either Returned decades or even centuries ago, or won’t Return for the same amount of time. In all the time I’ve been here, I have only heard of one case of a Returnee finding a relative, and that was a young mother finding a daughter who had returned sixty-four years earlier, and as another species. That was a little disturbing to both parties.”
Kurt lapsed into silence again, and Amelia felt a bit helpless. She only ever had to introduce the new Returnees to the reality of their new lives; it was the responsibility of specialists to deal with their problems and ease them into a society that comprised many species, none of them human. She felt the need to try to keep him from sinking into despair though, so she tried the only thing that she could think of.
“What was she like?”
For a long moment, Amelia did not think he was going to reply, but eventually he sighed and said, “Farming is not the easiest of careers. There are so many things that can and do go wrong. Weather is a huge factor, but there are others, and it means that you’re spending a lot of your waking hours just trying to keep your head above water. Socialising comes in a poor second, and it’s rare that you meet a girl who can live with that reality. Anna though – she came from a farm family too, and she knew what it was like. She knew what to do that could lighten the load for both of us, and we found the time to make a life between us. She filled the void in me that I hadn’t realised was there. In the bad times, we supported each other and we muddled through, until things became good again. She gave me two fine sons, and we hoped that one day she might have a daughter also. I can’t imagine how I’m going to live without her.”
Kurt lapsed into silence and Amelia moved up to him and put her head against his neck in what she hoped was a comforting fashion. “Believe me, Kurt, life goes on and it won’t be all that bad in the long run. The pain will fade.”
“I don’t want it to fade. I want to remember the best thing in my life – the good times and the bad.”
Amelia did not know how to respond to that, so she remained silent.
“Did you have a husband or partner when this happened?” Kurt asked.
Amelia shook her head. “No, I was too focused on my career, and in my spare time I just enjoyed my freedom.”
Kurt snorted. “Freedom? You don’t know what you’re talking about. I was ‘free’ before I met Anna, but I was never happier until she became my wife.” He turned to glare at her. “What about now? You say you’ve been here for a couple of years; are you still enjoying your so-called freedom?”
“I have a boyfriend,” she said defensively.
“That’s it? A boyfriend? Don’t fool yourself that your life is perfect because of that. A true relationship is one of commitment. Anna and I devoted our lives to each other, and because of that we had a stable and loving relationship in which we made a family. That was what made my life perfect.”
Amelia realised that the pain of his loss was making him preachy, but he did raise some valid points, especially with regard to her non-commitment to Sunbeam. She had a lot to think about.
The sun had risen sufficiently enough by then to illuminate the forest adequately, but Amelia still could not determine where she was. A flicker of shadow caught her attention though, and she searched the canopy overhead. She saw nothing, but she did not quit trying. She had hopes that there would be a search party, even though visibility was poor through the trees. Then she realised that there was the slightest of gaps in the trees where the stream cut through the forest, and she looked for a place to safely get into it.
“What are you doing?” Kurt asked.
“Looking for a suitable place to get into the stream so that I can look up at the sky.”
“I think we passed a good spot a couple of minutes walking back.”
“Okay, let’s try there.” She started limping in that direction.
“Are you looking for a search plane? I haven’t heard anything.”
“Maybe, but more likely pegasi. Keep your ears open.”
“Flying horses are something that I will need to see to believe.”
Amelia had to hide her grin. She doubted he would be impressed by her amusement.
They came to a spot where the stream briefly widened and grew shallow. They had no trouble wading out into it safely, and as she had hoped, Amelia could now see a small patch of open sky.
“So, what now?” Kurt asked.
“I reckon that this is about our best bet for being spotted short of open ground which we don’t know about, so keep your eyes peeled and your ears pricked.”
“They seem to be doing that well enough by themselves,” he grumbled as said ears flicked.
They stood there for a long time, watching and listening assiduously. The water was cold about their legs, but it was nowhere near as bad for Amelia as when she had been half-submerged by it. She could tolerate this. Still, they spotted nothing for about three quarters of an hour.
“What’s that?” Kurt asked.
Amelia swung her head to catch a glimpse of something. It could have been an eagle, but she chose to believe that it was a pegasus. “HELP!” she shouted.
Kurt joined in with the shouting, and their calls for help redoubled. However, they got no response. A few minutes later, Amelia glimpsed another flying form, but it was more distant than the first. She needed another way to attract attention. She tentatively tried her horn again, and she winced at the stab of pain. Nevertheless it was not as bad as it had been before, and she decided to give it a go.
“Kurt – I’m going to try something, and it’s likely to hurt a lot and I might collapse.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“Brace yourself for some screaming on my part, but mostly don’t let me fall in the stream, please.”
“I can do that,” he promised.
Amelia braced herself as best as she could. “Okay, you can do this, Amelia,” she murmured to herself. She decided to do it as quickly as possible in the hopes of the pain being brief and not failing in her intentions because of it. She threw a lot of magic into her horn and it glowed brightly. The pain was like a bullet through her brain and she screamed in agony, but she held up against it long enough to form a mana ball and fire it up through the gap in the trees. It rose above the treetops about thirty metres before it exploded. Amelia swayed on her hooves, but Kurt steadied her, even as he marvelled at the display.
Tears poured from Amelia’s eyes as the pain eased to a pounding throb, but despite that, she swore she heard voices.
The noise of what sounded like a firework exploding caused Sunbeam to whip his head around in the direction whence it came. He spotted the sparkles of magic dissipating after the explosion, and he pumped his wings to accelerate to that position as fast as possible. He was not the only pegasus to notice, but he was determined to be the first to get there. The mana burst left no residue except a slight tingle in the air which told him that he was in the right general area, and he began a careful scan of the area. His eyes caught the glitter of sunlight off water which drew his attention, and then he spotted not one but two figures standing in the midst of it. “Down here!” he screamed to the other searchers even as he dived. He slipped through the gap in the trees and came to a splashy landing a couple of metres away from two ponies. One was a stallion who was staring at him with wide-open eyes and slack jaw, but the other was the mare that he had prayed to find. She looked up at him with bleary and tear-soaked eyes.
Sunbeam leapt over to her and embraced her fiercely. “Thank heavens I found you, Amelia.”
“Ow! Broken leg! Pain!” she shouted.
Sunbeam hurriedly released her and looked solicitously at the upraised foreleg. “Don’t worry, Amelia, we’ll get you back to a doctor and get that fixed soon. You look a mess.”
“I survived a plane crash, a fire, a fall into a gully, and nearly drowning – I think I have the right to look a mess.”
Sunbeam laughed in relief. “You sure do. Who’s your friend? Another passenger on the plane? We found the dead pilot in the wreckage.”
Kurt was still staring as more pegasi joined them. One of them was talking on a walkie-talkie, informing Machspeed that they had found Amelia.
“No, he isn’t. Would you believe he’s a Returnee that just arrived a few days ago? This whole area used to be his farmland.”
“So you managed to save someone after all?”
“Actually, he’s the one who saved me. I’ll tell you all about it later. I just want to get out of here for now.”
“Of course!” Sunbeam turned to one of the other pegasi. “Fairwind, can you carry the earth pony?”
“I thought you were the heavy-lifter?” she grumbled. Sunbeam gave her a pointed look and she continued, “Alright! You carry your marefriend, and I’ll carry this guy.”
Kurt managed to tear his eyes from the impossible flying ponies and said to Amelia, “So he’s the boyfriend, I take it?”
Amelia blushed and nodded.
Kurt looked at Sunbeam appraisingly and then turned back to Amelia. “Yeah, I think he’s got what it takes. Remember what I said.”
“I will,” Amelia assured him even as she carefully climbed onto Sunbeam’s back
Fairwind lowered herself to the ground to let Kurt do the same. The earth pony looked a little wary but imitated Amelia. “Is this safe?”
“I trust Sunbeam with my life, so I think you’ll do okay with Windy,” she replied with a grin.
A moment later, both pegasi spread their wings and took off with their passengers. Kurt later denied whinnying in terror.
A first-aid medic on the Search & Rescue team set and splinted Amelia’s broken leg, but told her that she would have to go to the hospital to have it thoroughly checked and a cast put on it. She also had the worst of her other cuts and scrapes treated and her fur cleaned up.
She found Sunbeam impatiently waiting for her. He opened up his mouth to say something but she just trotted over and nuzzled him under the chin and rubbed against his neck, humming happily.
“This is nice,” Sunbeam said with his eyes closed as he enjoyed the gentle intimacy.
“No, this is perfect,” Amelia replied. “Beamer, will you do something for me?”
Sunbeam drew back his head to look at her hopeful face. “What brought this on?”
“I could say it was the near-death experience, but really it was mostly Kurt who pointed out what I could be missing. I’m not certain he’s right, but I really think it’s worth it to make the commitment. So what’s your answer?”
He smiled happily. “I did say anything, didn’t I? Yes, Amelia, I will marry you.”
Amelia squealed with joy, flung her good hoof around his neck and pulled him into a long kiss. When she finally drew back and gazed at his blissful face, she said, “Best second life ever!”
Machspeed had faced two major hurdles when establishing the A.R.R.R.S. in the early days. Firstly, despite Flashpoint’s prodigious teleportation ability, she could only do pinpoint landings at places that she had already visited. While she could teleport between continents with ridiculous ease, she was as likely to arrive in a lake or a treetop without a firmly established anchor point. Desperation to meet potential clients on time had once seen she and he actually experience the embarrassment of arriving at the meeting dripping wet after materialising over a nearby river. Aside from similar emergencies, most of their first-time cross-country or international trips to new destinations were done the long way – by road if possible, or by boat or airplane.
The aviation industry was still very basic. The rise and fall of pony civilisation had seen the loss of vital resources and knowledge, and ironically it was the Returnees who had provided the know-how to re-start flight as a means of transport (if you didn’t happen to be a pegasus or griffin!). Twin-engine propeller planes were the pinnacle of aeronautics in this era, and air travel was an adventure that took days rather than hours. He and Flashpoint endured the journeys in order to make contacts at various strategic locations where aircraft were most likely to pop out of the time-stream. Fortunately, once his wife had established an ‘anchor’ there, she could re-visit at her leisure. In fact that was the way that they were able to impress the local authorities. A quick trip to Australia and a jaunt over to New Zealand, and then back again proved both amazing and convincing.
However, that brought them to their second hurdle – language. It was bad enough that many of the countries that they visited did not speak English, but English itself had suffered greatly from centuries of linguistic drift. Australia had fared fairly well, but America had devolved into regional dialects that were barely recognisable in places. Once again, it was the influence of Returnees that had stabilised the languages somewhat; otherwise Machspeed would have had an even worse time getting the business under way. Fortunately English was also the common language of the commercial aviation industry, and still was used today.
That did not make some things easy though. Bureaucracy had its own language, and when it was Japanese, it was nearly insurmountable. Machspeed was prepared to thank whatever gods had sent Keiko his way at the critical time. The little Neighponese (yes, they actually used that pun name) mare was a Returneee who had been a translator pre-Event, and still put those skills to good use in this brave new world of magical, colourful ponies.
“Kon'nichiwa, Machspeed-san, Flashpoint-san. It is good to see you once more,” Keiko said with a bow of her head.
“Hello, Keiko-san. The feeling’s mutual,” Machspeed replied. “Let me introduce you to Amelia, our newest crew member. She’s a pilot like me.”
“Yokoso – welcome, Amelia-san.”
“Thanks, Keiko,” Amelia replied, matching Keiko’s polite bow.
“Are you ready to go on a rescue again, Keiko?”
The golden-coated earth pony smiled and nodded enthusiastically. “It has been quite a while since we last had a large aircraft appear here. I am most eager to accompany you.”
“Let’s get down to business then.”
“Hai! Follow me, please.”
Keiko led Machspeed, Flashpoint, and Amelia from the designated rendezvous point into the control room of the Narita Airport. The Japanese ponies had had a more difficult time reclaiming a runway that could be sufficiently refurbished to land heavy pre-Event aircraft, but the lure of advanced technology and materials had spurred them onto making the Narita airport one of the few in that corner of the world that could cope with any airplane that came out of the time-stream. Today though, they did not have to deal with anything like a jumbo jet, hence why it was only a three-pony crew attending this job.
Keiko stopped before the person in charge and exchanged words with him in Japanese. Amelia just stared at him with a mixture of surprise and amusement. That he was not a pony was extremely obvious. He was a biped, for starters, very furry and raccoon-like in appearance. What kept drawing her eyes though was the way his pants were bulging very conspicuously in the crotch. She leaned over to Machspeed and whispered, “What is he?”
Machspeed grinned. “He’s a tanuki.”
“On Earth, tanukis are native to Japan, but they’re just animals, although there was a lot of folklore about their magical abilities. However, as I have told you, many of the legendary and mythological creatures have become reality post-Event. I can only imagine that magical tanukis were fairly common in that part of Equestria. Now they’re here.”
“And the big… you know?”
“All males have really big balls. In fact, the bigger they are, the more powerful their magic.”
Amelia stifled a laugh. “What’s their magic?”
“They’re shape-changers. Quite good too, although you might not want to know about all their legendary abilities.”
Amelia’s curiosity was aroused, and she was going to ask more, but attention was turned to them by the subject of their discussion. The tanuki said something and Keiko translated.
“The regional jet plane is on our approach radar. We are ready for you now, Flashpoint.”
The unicorn mare nodded and went over to the indicated radar screen. She fixed in her mind the location of the aircraft, and then closed her eyes and extended her talent to find it.
“Got it. Show-time, guys!” she announced.
Amelia, Machspeed, and Keiko reached out a hoof to make contact with Flashpoint, and a moment later she teleported them away.
Key to Flashpoint’s extraordinary teleportation ability was its precision. Once she had a lock on the target, she could place all of them with millimetre accuracy which, on a crowded aircraft with panicky passengers, was of vital importance. Each member of the team materialised in a different part of the corridor that went down the middle of the airplane, filling a gap that was at least big enough for their entire body. Machspeed did not know what would happen if he was to merge with another pony or inanimate object, and he had no desire whatsoever to find out. He found himself near the forward section, with only Amelia closer to the cockpit. A quick glance around confirmed that they were aboard what looked like an Embraer E170 which could hold eighty or so passengers. Then he took a longer look at said passengers.
Dozens of eyes were fixed upon him, and the cabin noise faded to almost total silence. As far as he could see, almost every one of the passengers was a filly, perhaps mid-teens, and for some reason only known to the Japanese, all dressed in schoolgirl sailor fuku.
The corner of Machspeed’s lip twitched as he thought, ‘Have I dropped into an anime show?’ He attempted a reassuring smile and said, “Hello, girls. We’re here to help.”
He anticipated Keiko translating his words, but before she could, the entire group of fillies squealed in glee and started crowding up to him, babbling excitedly. The only word that he could make out among them was ‘kawaii!’, which did not make him any more reassured.
Machspeed was a larger than average stallion even back home, but he stood a lot taller than the Neighponese ponies. Next to these fillies though, he must have seemed incredibly imposing, and it did not help that he was a fit and well-muscled pony. Their fawning over him was making him more nervous by the second. He held up his forehooves and made calming motions, while calling out, “Keiko! A little help, please!”
Unfortunately the translator was stuck near the rear of the airplane and not only could not get any closer to Machspeed, but she also having difficulty making herself heard over the super-excited babble of the fillies. The mare could barely get the attention of the schoolgirl right next to her.
Machspeed could not believe this surreal situation. Time after time, he and his team had needed to deal with terrified, confused, and near-helpless Returnees. Nothing in his experience had prepared him for near outright adulation by a group of teenage girls. He looked towards Amelia, hoping to get some help from her, but she was cracking up with laughter at the sight. Apparently the girls were not interested in mares, and she was free to watch the show.
“Help me get past these fillies!” Machspeed pleaded.
“I’ve got a better idea,” Amelia replied. “I’ll race you to the cockpit. Whoever gets there first gets to fly the airplane.”
“It’s my turn to fly!” he protested.
Amelia shrugged. “I’ll give you a five second head start.” She gave him an innocent grin.
“You’re throwing me to the wolves here, Amelia! Cute, adorable, she-wolves!”
“Seems to me that’s your problem, and perhaps your wife’s.” Her eyes shifted toward the rear of the airplane.
Machspeed froze. “Oh, bugger.” He looked frantically for Flashpoint before spotting a magic glow moving inexorably towards him as one schoolfilly after another was telekinetically lifted out of the way. “Uh-oh, jealous wife incoming.”
“I’ll take care of the flying, shall I?” Amelia asked ingenuously.
Machspeed groaned and gave up. He concentrated instead on trying to fend off the over-eager fillies and waited for his wife to save him.
Amelia unlocked the cockpit door with the magic spell that Machspeed had taught her long ago, and she peered cautiously inside. Unsurprisingly the captain was a pony – a pegasus judging by the way his shirt was strained from within. He looked around as he heard Amelia open the door, an expression of confusion on his face.
“N-nani?” he asked.
“I’m here to help, sir. Do you understand English?”
“English? Yes, some. Who are you?”
“I am part of a rescue team. Please remain calm. We are here to help you land safely.”
“How? What happen?” The stallion waved his hooves helplessly.
“Long story for later, sir. Now what about your co-pilot… oh my…” Amelia stared at the occupant of the co-pilot’s chair, and he calmly looked back at her.
A dragon! A genuine honest-to-god Eastern-style dragon – long and lean with shimmering golden scales and no wings.
Without thinking, Amelia gave the dragon a respectful bow of the head, and he responded in kind.
“Go aisatsu, yunikon-san,” he said.
“Pleased to meet you,” Amelia replied, hoping that was the correct response. She then shook herself and considered the situation. The dragon was far better suited to the co-pilot’s chair than most species, and could be of great help with the landing, even with the disadvantage of coordinating a new body. The captain, however, was just as helpless as she had been when she had first Returned. Fortunately, unlike her captain, this one could easily be removed from his seat. “Pardon me, sir, but I have to get in your place.”
Amelia lit up her horn and a matching glow surrounded the pegasus. He froze in shock as she lifted him out of the chair and backed out of the cockpit, carrying him back into the cabin. She placed him down on the floor and looked over to Machspeed to see how he was faring. Flashpoint had reached his side, and was keeping the fillies at bay with stern glares. They had started making their way forward, but Amelia was not about to surrender the pilot seat now. She hastened back into the cockpit, climbed into the captain’s chair and levitated the headset so it sat as comfortably as possible over her ears. She glanced at the dragon and asked, “Do you speak English?”
The dragon had been watching with curiosity, but merely tilted his head with a faint look of incomprehension.
“Okay, let’s hope that Keiko can make her way up here soon,” she muttered. She looked over the instruments and found them to be normal, with the automatic pilot maintaining a steady course, albeit one that had already overshot the airport. That was pretty common and reassuring. Then she switched on the radio. “Narita Tower – this is Captain Amelia of the Aeronautical Returnee Rescue Response Squad on the inbound regional jet. Are you receiving? Over.”
“This is Narita Tower receiving you, Captain Amelia. Over.”
“Narita – we have the aircraft under full control and the passenger situation is weird but stable. Requesting standard approach and clearance for landing. Over.”
“Standard approach approved. You have priority landing clearance. Over.”
“Thank you, Narita Tower. Coming about to make approach now. Out.”
Machspeed poked his head into the cockpit just as Amelia started bringing the airplane around to head back towards the airport. “How are things going here?”
“All under control, Mach, but get a load of the co-pilot,” Amelia replied.
Machspeed had already noticed the dragon gazing placidly at him. He blinked in surprise and said, “Okay, that’s new.”
“We’re really getting the mythicals today, aren’t we? Anyway, if you can get me Keiko, I think this guy might be able to help bring the airplane in. I know what it was like to help you when you were rescuing me.”
“Fair enough. Flashpoint has just about managed to get my fangirls back into their seats, so Keiko should be here momentarily.”
Amelia was almost ready to start the descent when Keiko finally managed to reach the cockpit. She was even more impressed by the dragon, but managed a polite conversation with him anyway. He introduced himself as Miyazaki Hiro, and explained that while he was a little confused by the situation, his interests in fantasy, folklore, and anime had left him intrigued rather than frightened. He was actually looking forward to whatever happened next!
Although Hiro was still learning to coordinate his new body, nevertheless he was able to perform a lot of his co-pilot duties still with the aid of Keiko’s translations, and Amelia was able to bring the small jet airplane in for a textbook landing, albeit in imperfect conditions.
Machspeed was feeling a bit sulky due to missing out on his turn at piloting, and still a little creeped-out by the way the schoolfillies continued to eye him hungrily. How could so many former human girls be so oblivious to the radical changes in their lives that they would obsess over a handsome male pony? He sure hadn’t thought of mares that way for some time after his Return!
After they had debarked the passengers and shut down the aircraft, Flashpoint teleported all the pilots and Keiko off it. Hiro bowed to Amelia and the rest of the team before joining with the rest of the Returnees. It was amusing to watch the Neighponese ponies gaping in awe at the dragon as he walked past.
Machspeed was finishing up the paperwork with the authorities in order to secure their share of the profits from salvaging the regional jet when he noticed Amelia quietly talking to Flashpoint. She seemed to be giggling about something as she said things that he could not overhear. Then she asked just loudly enough for him to hear, “Will you do it?”
His wife looked a little bemused but smiled and nodded. “Okay.”
Amelia grinned with glee. “Just don’t tell Beamer, okay?” Amelia said a bit more loudly.
“Afraid he’ll be jealous?” Flashpoint asked.
“More likely he’ll want me to keep it up!” Amelia replied with a hint of a blush.
Machspeed’s warning alarm went off in his head. Two of the most important mares in his life were conspiring – this could not be good.
The three of them left the office with Keiko, but when they reached their departure area, Amelia pulled out a microphone from her saddle-pack that she had apparently borrowed from somewhere. She reared up on her hind legs, held up the microphone like a wand, and cried out, “Cutie mark flash!” She started spinning around on one hoof while her horn glowed, throwing off streaks of light. Then Flashpoint’s horn also glowed, and Amelia disappeared, but reappeared a fraction of a second later, only to repeat the sequence again and again. It was a dazzling display of special effects, all the more remarkable for having been devised on short notice.
Machspeed’s ears lay flat and he felt a sense of dread at what was coming.
Amelia suddenly reappeared directly in front of him, now somehow divested of her jacket but with something wrapped artfully around her – a borrowed curtain perhaps? She bopped him on the nose with the ‘wand’, a burst of magical static making his coat and mane fluff out wildly. “Princess Amelia chooses you!” she proclaimed.
“Nope!” Machspeed blurted out, backing up hurriedly. Then he turned and galloped away, still saying “Nope! Nope! Nope!” as the howls of laughter from Amelia and Flashpoint followed him down the corridor. Those anime fans were crazy!
Stop That Blimp! by Alden MacManx
NOTE: Aside from the opening paragraphs, this story has been written by Alden MacManx who wanted to dabble in my Safe Landings scenario.
“Before you leave, Hal, we have something to give you,” Machspeed told the visiting pony.
The grey pegasus looked puzzled. “Okay,” he replied as he followed the unicorn into the staff common room.
The entire ARRRS crew were gathered and waiting, and Flashpoint was holding up a jacket in her magic. Machspeed took it from her and faced the bemused pegasus.
“On behalf of the Aeronautical Returnee Rescue Response Squad, I’d like to present you with one of our jackets as an unofficial member as thanks for your invaluable help today.”
Hal grinned as he took the jacket, slipping his wings through the slots with practiced ease. “Thanks, guys, I had loads of fun helping out. Believe me, I’m not going to forget this day in a hurry….”
Major Hal Sleet, Nevada Aeronautical Survey (Reserves) and Dust Devils auxiliary, nodded to Machspeed as the two completed the tour of the Aeronautical Returnee Rescue Response Squad (A.R.R.R.S.) facility outside of Brisbane. “I have to hoof it to you, Machspeed, you have a first-class organization here. First-rate talent, too,” he said with obvious approval.
“Without Flashpoint’s skills, little of this would be possible,” Machspeed replied with more than a little pride.
“Here’s hoping Flashpoint can teach Raven her pinpoint teleportation skill, if not the range. Right now, she can only teleport herself, and the most she can do currently is about fifteen miles. She has yet to be able to take anyone with her,” the grey pegasus with the rainbow mane and tail said. He held up a hoof. “If I could still cross my fingers, I would be.”
“I know what you mean, Hal. Sometimes I find myself wishing I could do that.”
“Tough rescues, eh?”
“They can be. Some can be fun, but not all.”
“So Harper told me last time I filled in for the Dust Devils. I could fly small planes, but I never got past single engine prop. After my mother died these many years ago, I sort of lost interest. Kept it up, but never tried for my twin license. I can fly them, but never got the permits. She was the real pilot. I learned how at her knee, and got my license while I was in the Navy, but the only things I really flew were submarines. Now, that can be a challenge.”
“How so?” Machspeed asked as the two ponies approached his office.
“In a plane, you rely on dynamic lift – air moving over the wings keeps you up. Lose speed, and you stall and head groundward fast.” At Machspeed’s nod of understanding, Hal went on. “In a sub, lift is provided by the air in the ballast tanks. With air in the tanks, you go up to the surface, no two ways about it.
“However, you vent the air out of the tanks, and you can dive. Depth control is assisted by the planes, but you can control depth with the internal trim tanks. Pump some water out to go up, take water in to go down, send water forward to nose down, aft to nose up. Speed is independent of lift. You can maintain depth control at ahead flank as well as you can at ahead one-third. You can cruise along at an up angle or a down angle without changing depth. On the six fifty-six, more than once, Engineering asked for a half-degree down angle to drain bilges. It is possible to put fairwater planes down and stern planes up and cruise along at 200 feet. Not easy, but it can be done.”
“Sounds exciting. How can you see where you are going?” Machspeed asked.
“Simple – you don’t. All you see is an instrument bank in front of you, with ship’s attitude, depth, rudder and plane indicators, and other instruments. For where you are, you depend on the Navigation department, Sonar and the Quartermasters to keep you from running into an underwater mountain or another ship,” Hal said before shuddering a little. “One time, we came up through a thermal layer right under a supertanker. Estimates guess that the screws of the tanker cleared the missile deck by ten feet. They got screw counts from the engine room and the chief’s quarters.”
“Were you on duty at the time?”
“Yes, as Chief of the Watch. The Officer of the Deck ordered a crash dive, I started taking on water, we went to max down on all planes, and the Diving Officer triggered the general alarm instead of the collision alarm while declaring ‘Collision Imminent’,” Hal said before snorting. “Only time I ever caught Chief Brightling making a mistake.”
“When was this?”
“1983 in the Atlantic. My second patrol on the Carver. Did five there, and six on the Woody Wilson before that.”
“Hit any good ports?”
Hal shook his head as he grabbed a cup of coffee from the ever-ready supply for the staff. “Boomers seldom get good ports. Our job was to go out and stay hid, ready to launch missiles whenever called for. Once, we did go to Barbados. That was fascinating.”
Machspeed was about to ask more about it when his receptionist, Rosethorn, came in. “Mach, I have a call for a Returning aircraft in Rome. They want to talk to you,” she said.
“Thank you, Rose. I’ll take it in here,” Mach said as he lifted the telephone with his telekinesis. When he heard the connection being made, he said, “A.R.R.R.S., this is Machspeed.”
“Signore Machspeed, I is Leonardo Saldacci, airport manager in Roma,” a heavily accented voice said. “We have had an airship Return just outside of Roma a few minutes ago. It is slowly gaining altitude, heading inwards toward the city. Can you do rescue, yes?”
“An airship? You mean like a blimp, yes?”
“Si, si, blimp – that is word. If go too high, could rupture gas cells and crash. Can you rescue?”
Machspeed looked at Hal. “Think you can help me land a blimp?”
Hal smiled. “Since you asked me, I’m willing to try. Where at?”
“Roma? Buono! Parlo Italiano! Mi famiglia, from Napoli!”
Machspeed turned back to the phone. “Mister Saldacci, we should be there within ten minutes.”
“Hurry, please, Signore Machspeed.”
Machspeed put out the all-call, announcing an imminent rescue, asking all hooves to gather at the muster area, which was done within two minutes. He quickly explained the situation in Rome.
“What do we know about flying a blimp, Mach?” Sunbeam asked.
“Not much, but we do have somepony here who knows something about handling buoyancy,” Mach said, pointing to Hal with a hoof.
“There is probably not much space at all in the blimp’s gondola, so I think the initial wave should be just Machspeed, Flashpoint and myself. Flashpoint can evac the crew of the blimp, while Mach and I can try to get the airship under control enough to bring it to a safe landing,” Hal told the group.
“You think you can leave me behind on this?” Amelia said belligerently.
“At first, yes,” Hal said. “Once we get aboard and look about, we can have you come up and assist. At first, we’ll need to get the crew off and see if I can puzzle out the buoyancy controls before we go too high.”
“He does have a point, Amelia,” Machspeed said.
Amelia’s temper settled as she thought some about the rescue. “Yes, he does. Okay, I’ll come along second. But you better call me in as soon as you need me!”
“Amelia, if I have to be altitude cox’n, I’ll need one of you for the rudder and the other for the planes. Everyone else will be line handlers, if we can get her down.”
“Lines! Pounder, gather as much line as you can find, with some sort of carabiners on one end to hook onto the line attachment points. Sunbeam, Featherdrop, get ready to attach the lines, once we get low enough,” Machspeed ordered.
“Hal, you be careful out there. I’ve already almost lost you once. I won’t have it happen twice,” Raven, Hal’s wife said, with their young twins, Black Onyx and Kaleidoscope, standing next to her.
“That’s what I’ll be there for, Raven,” Flashpoint said. “If trouble develops, I can get them down safely.”
“Let’s do this, ponies. First wave is myself, Flashpoint, Amelia and Major Sleet. Once we determine what is going on, Flashpoint will get the rest of you.”
“ARRR!” the group cheered as Amelia and Flashpoint moved close to Machspeed and Hal. Once they were all touching, Flashpoint teleported them to Rome’s airport.
In Rome, Mr. Saldacci, a red and green pegasus with white wings, met them and brought the ARRRS party to the tower, trying to explain in his broken English what was going on. Once Major Sleet indicated that he spoke Italian, Saldacci relaxed and gave a better explanation, which Hal translated.
“The blimp appeared on their radar about fifteen minutes ago, eighteen kilometers west of the city, close to the ground. Since then, it has been drifting east at about three kilometers an hour, and is climbing at a bit under one hundred meters a minute. No radio communications yet from the airship. The daily flight from Firenze will divert to get an eye on it, but that won’t be for another ten minutes or so.”
“Got a fix on it, Flashpoint?” Machspeed asked.
“Getting. I can feel it, but have not locked on yet. Give me a few more seconds to get a solid fix.”
“Okay. Amelia, you stay down here for now and be our comm relay. Once we get the crew out, you come up and give us a hoof. Clear?”
“Got it, boss,” Amelia said, going to look over the tower radios and radar.
“Let’s do this!” Hal said, moving next to Flashpoint.
“Onward and upward, team!” Machspeed declared. Flashpoint activated her teleport, and the three ponies were aboard the airship.
Once there, the team looked about. Two griffins were in the back at some sort of camera console, wedged in between the seats and the console. Forward, a pegasus and an earth pony were at the flight controls, the earth pony unconscious, and the pegasus on the razor’s edge of panic.
“Anyone here speak English?” Machspeed called out.
“I do, some. Captain knows more, but he pass out cold,” the pegasus managed to say. “What happen to us?” “Long story, which we won’t have time for now. Let’s get you evacuated, and we’ll see about flying this craft down to the ground,” Machspeed told the new pegasus.
“Where are the buoyancy controls?” Hal asked. At the pegasus’ confused look, he repeated the question in Italian. The pegasus pointed to a bank of switches. “Ecco.”
“Grazie,” Hal replied, looking the panel over.
One of the griffins started squawking in rapid-fire Italian, this one with red-brown feathers and a cream-colored fur pattern. Hal listened, said something in return, then said to Machspeed, “These two are stuck. Can we get them loose now? This one says she’s losing feeling in her feet.”
“Right. Flash?” Mach said. Together, the two unicorns managed to free the two stuck griffins while Hal studied the controls.
“Grazie, signore Equus.” said the second griffin, a gray-feathered and furred male.
“You’re welcome. Flash, you ready?” Mach asked.
“Get the unconscious one on my back, and have the others touch me. I’ll get them back to the ground and bring Amelia up.”
“Right.” Mach levitated the earth pony out of his seat and onto Flashpoint’s back, while Hal told the others what to do, helping the pegasus pilot to get up and move to where Flashpoint waited. When all were touching her, Flashpoint and the four crewfolk vanished. Instantly, the blimp nosed up and started rising faster.
“Hal, what’s going on?” Mach called out as he scrambled for the pilot’s seat.
“Losing the weight of five people without changing the lift is causing the ascent rate to climb! I better get some lift out! Full dive on all planes, increase speed to full!” Hal shouted as he held himself in place with one hoof, studying the control panel.
Mach climbed into the pilot’s seat and pushed forward on the yoke, moving the elevators to the full down position. “We’re still climbing!”
Hal quickly worked some controls with both his mouth and a wingtip. “I’m taking some lift out, compressing the helium back into the tanks. What’s our altitude?”
“Twenty-five hundred meters and climbing. Going to full power.”
“Be careful. Once we start going down, let me know. I’ll have to put some lift back in so we don’t descend too fast.”
“Hey, Mach, need some help up there?” Amelia’s voice came over the radio.
“Would be appreciated, Amelia. This craft is being a little antsy!” Mach called back, holding the yoke at a full down angle, yet the blimp kept rising.
“Be right up!” Amelia responded.
“Altitude, Mach?” Hal asked.
“Twenty-seven hundred meters and climbing.”
“Is there a climb-rate indicator there?” Hal asked as Flashpoint and Amelia appeared in the gondola.
Machspeed looked over the flight control panel. “Attitude, artificial horizon, altimeter, speed, climb rate… okay, it’s reading seventy meters a minute and dropping slowly. Make that sixty-two meters a minute. Amelia, take the copilot seat and hold the yoke in full down. Flash, get the rest of the crew to the Rome airport, then call me on the radio. I have an idea,” he said.
“Will do, Mach,” Flash said before vanishing.
“What you have in mind, Mach?” Hal asked.
Mach was watching the climb rate indicator. “Climb rate now sixty-four meters a minute. Does that tell you anything?”
Hal thought as he kept shunting lift out of the gasbag. “I think I do. How many of the crew do you think Flash could get up here without us stepping on each other?”
“One at a time, to add weight. I’m thinking twelve. Once we start dropping, start adding lift very slowly. We can bring this ship down, if we work together.”
“I see, Mach! Living ballast!” Amelia said from the copilot’s chair.
“Yes! The more weight we have up here, the less it will climb. Humans are bigger than ponies, so when they changed, there went ballast. Moving the crew off lightened the load even more, and we can’t shift lift out fast enough, so, we bring our own ballast along and up,” Mach explained.
“Good point, Mach,” Hal said. “This beast is real sluggish responding to depth control. Must have been trimmed for a higher weight, and it’s not compensating fast enough. Altitude?”
“Nearing twenty-nine hundred meters, climb rate down to fifty-six meters per minute.”
“Good to hear. Let’s hope Flashpoint gets the crew here soon.”
“She will, Major,” Amelia told him. “She’s very good at what she does.”
“As are the rest of us, Hal,” Machspeed added. “While we’re waiting, how do you know Italian so fluently?”
“When I was human, my name was Charles Anthony Corso Junior. A lot of my older relatives only spoke Italian, so I learned while young. Mother’s family is from Sicily, father’s from Naples. Guess it stuck around better than I had hoped,” Hal explained. “Still shunting lift out of all cells. Compressors seem to be running slow.”
“That’s because the generators are off line. We’re cruising on battery power only, and it’s going down,” Amelia said.
“They must have been coming in for mooring, and had everything shut down. See if you can find the engine start,” Hal suggested.
“Good idea,” Mach said as he looked over the controls. After a moment, “Okay, found it. Starting.” He pushed the button with his telekinesis, and all the lights dimmed. He quickly let up on the button. “That’s not good.”
“Not at all. We have a power drain somewhere. Check all controls, and shut off everything not needed,” Hal ordered as he headed to the back of the gondola, where the griffins had been sitting.
The two pilots looked at their panels, conferring over what systems to shut down. One by one, they shut systems down, radio, outside lights, inside lights (it was a sunny morning in Rome), navigation aids. Amelia found a switch. “Nose winch? What’s that?” she asked.
“Blimps sometimes have a line up in the bow, attached to a winch, which can be extended for mooring purposes. Get close to the ground, extend the nose line, and handlers on the ground can catch it and move the blimp to a secure mooring,” Hal explained.
“Well I’m getting a malfunction light on it. It’s set to retract, and it won’t shut off.” Amelia reported as she tried to turn off the winch, which failed to respond.
“I think that’s the source of the power drain, ponies,” Machspeed said. “Can you find a battery charge indicator, Amelia?”
The teal unicorn checked the unfamiliar instrument panels once again. “Found it,” she said in not-very-encouraging tones.
“What’s the reading?”
“Ten percent and dropping.”
Hal came forward and shut off the compressors on the lift control panel. “That should lessen the drain. Climb rate?”
“Forty meters a minute. Better than seventy,” Machspeed replied.
“Hope Flashpoint can handle teleporting everyone up here one at a time.”
“Hey, she brought thirteen ponies down from the ISS in a big tin can. She can handle one pony at a time,” Amelia said confidently.
“The ISS? You mean the Space Station?” Hal said, not believing what he had just heard.
“The Space Station. Not only that, but we got the Shuttle down as well.”
Hal gave the two unicorns a look of pure admiration. “I didn’t hear about that. I’m impressed.”
“More on that back at the base. Right now, let’s get this puppy down.” Machspeed said, returning his attention to the controls. “Let’s see if we can find a breaker to that winch.”
The team spent the next few minutes looking before a call came on Mach’s radio. “We’re all here, Mach. How are you doing?” Flashpoint called.
“Not as good as we hoped. You got everyone there?”
“The standard flight rescue crew. How do you want to proceed?”
“Bring Sky-scream up first. I’ll fill you in then.”
“On our way!”
Within half a minute, Flashpoint and Sky-scream appeared in the gondola.
“What you need me to do, Mach?” the big griffin asked.
“Stand in the back there, by that control panel, and just stay there. Flash, bring Pounder up next. Ascent rate?”
“Down to thirty-one meters per minute, Mach.” Amelia reported.
“Good. After Pounder, bring up the rest, one at a time. The more weight, the better, but not too much too fast.”
Flashpoint smiled in understanding. “Okay, I see now. Be right back!” she said as she teleported out.
“What’s going on up here?” Sky-scream asked.
“This balloon won’t stop going up, so we are going to weigh it down, Scream.” Mach told him.
“Why not let some gas out?”
“Because if we did, we may not be able to control the descent. Altitude control by releasing gas is dicey at best, because once out, it’s gone. We would either have to add gas or drop weight to stop the descent, and none of us are expert balloonists,” Hal explained.
“How do you know so much about balloons?” Sky-scream asked the visiting pegasus.
“Being Chief of the Watch aboard submarines put me in control of buoyancy, being a helmsman taught me flying a sub, and I’m a licensed private pilot. But most of my ballooning knowledge comes from my love of a classic Australian science-fiction author.”
“Which one?” the griffin asked.
“A fellow named A. Bertram Chandler. He was a merchant skipper who wrote science-fiction as a hobby for about forty years. Balloons and blimps featured in some of his novels.”
“I’ve heard of him.” Machspeed said from the front panel as Flashpoint brought Pounder in. “He died some time before the Event, right?”
“Back in the Eighties. I collected all of his works I could find. When I was a kid, he was my favorite author.”
“Where you want me, Mach?” the big earth pony asked.
“Back by Screamer, please. Ascent rate?”
“Dropping… stabilizing at twenty-two meters per minute. Altitude thirty-two hundred meters.”
“Okay. Flash – start bringing up the unicorns. Have Sunbeam and Featherdrop fly up with a line each and hook them up. Have them keep doing so until we start descending, then they can help guide us to the ground.”
“Got it, Mach,” Flashpoint said before heading out.
“Mach, I’m going to head out and see if I can unplug the forward winch, or at least have the line run free. If I can’t stop the power loss, at least I can get us nose-down,” Hal said, moving to the gondola door.
“Sounds like a plan, Major. Before you go, Pounder, give the Major your radio, please.”
“Right, Mach.” Pounder slipped his radio off and helped Hal put it on.
Once it was set, Hal opened the door and went out. “Sleet to Mach – radio check.”
“Read you five by, Major. Go do it to it.”
“Do it to it, Sleet, aye.”
Flashpoint brought the crew members up one at a time, the ascent rate going down with each pony. However, they ran out of crew members before running out of ascent. “Hal, how are you doing out there?”
“I’ve found the nose reel, broke open the hatch and am about ready to start pulling lines. I can smell the motor overheating.”
“Hal, hold off. Come back to the gondola door and pick up Amelia. Have her pull the lines with telekinesis.”
“Understood. We’re still climbing, right?”
“At four meters per minute. We’re going to have to find some more ponies.”
“On my way.”
“Why me, Mach?” Amelia asked.
“You like to ride on Sunbeam’s back, you know how to hang on to a pegasus, and Hal knows where to go. You can get the job done faster than anypony else. Flash, head back to the base and see if you can round up a few more weights.”
“Good argument, Mach,” Amelia said as Flashpoint teleported out. She made her way to the gondola door and opened it as Hal flew up. Arclight telekinetically picked Amelia up and settled her on Hal’s back. Once set, he flew up to the nose winch.
“You see the power lines?” Hal shouted when they got to the open hatch.
“Yes, I do. Keep us steady while I pull, okay?”
“Got it!” Hal held as still as he could while Amelia’s horn lit up and pulled hard on the wiring. Several connectors came loose and the winch motor stopped straining.
“That did it! Let’s get you back inside and I’ll start pulling the line out!”
“Sounds good, Major! Let’s do it!”
Hal flew back to the gondola door where Arclight waited to lift Amelia off his back and inside. Once free, he flew back to the winch, grabbed the line in his teeth and pulled. The line resisted at first, but it slowly came free, running the reel out. That’s when he noticed the blimp had stopped rising and was heading down slowly.
“Mach, where did you find the extra weight?” Hal called over the radio.
“You better not call me fat, Chuckie, or I’ll kick you from Brisbane to Perth!”
“Yes, Raven. Let’s get this airship to port,” Hal said meekly before flying to the end of the nose line, looking ahead for a landing place.
Flashpoint looked at Raven. “You normally push him around like that?” she asked.
“It’s the only way to keep him under control, Flash,” Raven said with a smile. Their partner, Wordsmythe, a burly dark-orange earth pony, nodded in agreement.
“Raven, don’t give her any ideas!” Machspeed complained from the pilot’s seat as the crew laughed.
“Who said I needed any ideas, Mach?” Flashpoint said with an evil smile.
Ignoring the barb, Mach looked back at the flight control panel. “Hal, we’re dropping at ten meters per minute. Is that safe enough?” he asked.
“What’s our altitude, Mach?”
“Thirty-one hundred meters.”
“At that rate, it’s going to take five hours to land this thing. Try starting the generator again. If not enough power, ask Raven to try a jump start. If I can get some lift control, I want to try to drop this thing a lot faster until we’re a kilometer up, then add some lift. Need me inside?”
“Stand by. Trying engine start.” Mach pushed the start button with his telekinetic glow. The engine coughed, the panel lights dimmed, but the engine managed to catch. “We have engine start! Come on back in, Hal!”
“Be right there!”
When Hal got back to the door, he found he had to push his way through the crowd to get next to Amelia and the lift control station. “Okay, now. Batteries charging?” he asked.
“Batteries are charging, and we have full power available from generator,” Amelia reported.
“Activating compressors, taking lift out of all gasbags. Come to ahead full, full down on all planes. Better call ahead to see if the airport is ready for us,” Hal suggested.
“Will we even make the airport from here?” Arclight asked.
“We should, if I have not gotten turned around.”
“Flash, go to the airport and get us a steer from there.” Machspeed ordered. “We may not know where they are, but they know where we are, thanks to radar.”
“Will do, Mach!” she replied before doing.
“What’s our descent rate?” Hal asked.
“About twenty-five meters per minute.”
“Let me know when we hit one hundred meters a minute, and sound off when we pass fifteen hundred meters. I want to try to level off at one thousand before attempting a landing.”
“Better a bump than a thump, right?” Mach commented.
“I have not botched a landing in my life, and I don’t plan to now,” Hal said, looking at his wife across the crowded gondola. “She’ll never let me forget it!”
“She and I both, Hal.” Wordsmythe said from where he stood. “The write up on this will make a good page in the Review-Journal.”
Hal locked eyes with Machspeed. “We better not botch this.” the two said simultaneously.
“Mach, we have you on radar. Steer zero-eight-five true. You’re about nine kilometers out.” Flashpoint called on the radio. “You have clearance to land here. The airport staff is marking out a landing area for you.”
“Tell them ‘molto grazie’, Flashpoint,” Hal said.
Mach turned the airship so it was on the proper heading, the descent rate steadily increasing as more lift was shunted out. A few minutes went by before Amelia reported, “Descent rate one hundred meters per minute, altitude two-one hundred meters.”
“Very well, Amelia. Let me configure this for gas release back into the lift cells,” Hal said.
Machspeed turned to look at the fourteen other ponies crammed in to the now quite cramped gondola. “Hang on to your dinners, crew. I just thought of a way to get down faster. Expect a steep angle.”
“Mach, if you’re going to do what I think you’re going to do, start leveling out at a thousand meters. This beast is real slow on depth control,” Hal said warily.
“Full power, full dive! Let’s get down from here!” Mach shouted as he put the planes down while dialing up full speed. Slowly, the down angle increased, passing through ten degrees, to fifteen, through twenty before stopping at a twenty-five degree down angle. Every pony in the back struggled not to fall forward, some of the unicorns setting up fields to hold them back.
“Passing fifteen hundred meters, Mach!” Amelia said.
“Remind me not to mention angles and dangles to this crew,” Hal muttered as he tried not to fall over Amelia.
“Pulling out of dive now!” Mach said as he eased the elevons out of the steep angle, dialing the engines back to cruising speed.
“Do you normally do thrill rides, Machspeed?” Raven asked.
“Remind me to tell you about the time he put the cargo 747 into a loop,” Amelia said.
“I did NOT loop a 747, Raven. SHE did!” Mach said defensively.
“I didn’t think that was possible.” Hal commented.
“Got news for you… it’s not.” Arclight said from the back. “They’re just jerking your chain.”
“Spoilsport!” Amelia accused before looking again at her panel. “Altitude nine hundred meters. Better get ready to add lift, Hal.”
“Just what are you chowder heads doing up there?” Flashpoint called.
“Getting down out of the stratosphere into some denser air, love. What’s our distance?”
“Seven and a half kilometers, Mach. You’re spot on course. The field will be clear for you for the next ninety minutes, then the Vienna flight will be arriving.”
“We’ll be there beforehand. Any word on the airship’s crew?”
“They have been taken to a hospital for observation. The captain is completely out of it, copilot close to doing so. The camera griffins are doing better than them.”
“Good to hear, Flash. We should be there in about twenty minutes, at this speed.”
“I’ll roll out the red carpet.”
“Suuuure, you will,” Amelia said drily.
“Hal, once we’re there, any instructions?” Mach asked.
“Yes, one important one.” Hal said, looking back at the crowd. “DO NOT exit the gondola under ANY circumstances until it is completely tied down to the ground, lift shunted out, and motors off. Your weight is making the ship descend, and if you get off, and we’re not ready, this ship is heading right back up. So, STAY PUT, ponies!
“Sunbeam, Featherdrop, how many lines have you attached to the tie downs?”
“Three on each side, plus the nose line, Major,” Sunbeam reported.
“Okay, once we get to the ground, start anchoring the lines to anything possible. Buildings, bottle screws, dog runs, I don’t care. We need to get this sausage firmly set before we exit.”
An hour later with the airship firmly anchored to the ground, enough lift taken out so the ship could not lift its own weight, and generators off, Hal declared, “All hooves may now disembark. Thank you for flying Rainbow Air.” The resulting stampede bowled Hal over, finding hoof prints in his wing feathers afterwards.
He looked up after everyone had left. “Sheesh… it wasn’t that bad a flight, was it?”
Busting A Buster by Alden MacManx
Note: A Southerly Buster is a cold front that occurs occasionally in the Sydney area, although they have been known to happen in Melbourne, Wellington and Argentina. Winds in excess of 50 km/hr are not unknown, as are thunderstorms and, infrequently, hail. Temperature drops of 10 to 15 degrees Celsius in less than an hour after the front passes are not unknown, either.
“You did WHAT?” Machspeed, Amelia and Flashpoint exclaimed simultaneously to the two pilots of a Gulfstream G650 that had appeared in the skies over Newcastle, New South Wales ten minutes before.
The command pilot, now a leaf green pegasus with dark green mane, wearing a white shirt with four-striped epaulets and a name tag that said ‘Parker’, looked back at the three unicorns that had appeared on his aircraft. “Like I said, we didn’t fill the tanks before leaving Brisbane. We were going to refuel here in Newcastle and charge the customer for it. Standard practice for Executive Air Charter.”
“There is no airport in Newcastle any more. In this area, the only good airports are Sydney and Brisbane.” Machspeed informed the flight crew.
“We could reach Sydney on our remaining fuel, if we don’t have too much else go wrong.” Parker said.
“I don’t like the look of the weather.” the copilot, a pink pegasus with a golden mane, a white shirt with three-striped epaulets and a name tag that said ‘Davis’ chipped in with. “Looks like Buster weather to me.”
“We better check to be sure. Landing this with bingo fuel in stormy weather would not be fun at all.” Machspeed said as he tuned the radio to the frequencies he knew Sydney Tower used.
“Machspeed to Sydney Tower. You awake in there, Crystal?”
“Always am, except when I’m not, Mach. Got another one coming in, eh?”
“With a bit of a problem. What’s the weather like there? We have a G650 with nearly empty fuel tanks.”
“Not good, Mach. There is a buster rolling in now. Should hit the airport full force in about fifteen minutes and last an hour, maybe more. I’m looking at the radar now and I don’t like what I see.”
“I was hoping you wouldn’t say that, Crystal. I’d hate to abandon this plane. G650’s was close to top of the line. Can we at least have a vector in?”
“Sure thing, Mach.” A pause while they heard the controller muttering to herself, then she told them, “From your location, steer 195. How’s the visibility?”
“Tolerable now. How is it there?”
“Not too bad, but if I’m reading this radar right, we’re going to have some serious stuff here within ten minutes.”
“Damn. We’ll be in touch after we figure out what we’re going to do.”
“Right. Sydney Tower standing by.”
Machspeed looked at Amelia and Flashpoint, while Parker and Davis looked on with a lot of worry evident on their faces, their shirts shifting as their wings fluttered. “Okay, ponies. Any ideas?”
“Well, with a bad storm coming, we could use a storm breaker.” Amelia said.
“Too bad we don’t have one”. Machspeed said before his face broke into a bright smile. “But, we know one. Flash, can you get a fix on Major Sleet?” he asked his wife.
Ever since the incident where Amelia had gone to rescue a plane that had a panicked stag as a pilot, and the plane crashing because of his panic, leaving Amelia broken, battered and lost for over a day, Flashpoint had put mana beacons in every member’s official team jacket, including the one they had given Major Sleet the week before after his help in rescuing a Returned airship outside of Rome. She concentrated, little sparkles of magic running along her horn, fascinating the two Returnees. “Found him! He’s at the airport in Sydney. Don’t know exactly where he is, but he is there!”
“If he’s at the airport, more than likely he’s with the Swackies, giving a talk.” Mach said, referring to the Sydney Area Weather Control team. Give my regards to Colonel Soucross, and see if they will be able to help us get down.”
“Will do, Mach!” Flashpoint said before disappearing.
“Swackies?” Captain Parker asked, obviously confused. Mach and Amelia started to explain about just what pegasi could do with the weather as they helped the two new Returnees out of their seats and into the main cabin before settling in to the cockpit themselves, Amelia taking the left-hand seat. (it was her turn to fly, after all.)
At the Sydney airport, two pegasi stood under an awning, looking at the approaching clouds. One, the slate-gray pegasus with white wings and a rainbow mane and tail, wearing his ARRRS jacket, said to his companion, a bright orange pegasus with a scarlet mane and tail and sky-blue wings, “Whenever I see skies like that, I either am up there cracking it or somewhere behind very solid walls.”
“Yes, this is shaping up to be a stronger than average Buster. Usually, we just let it go by. It’s not like we have a huge radio tower we depend on. Strong, but generally does not last more than an hour.”
“I’m not used to seeing a frontal line rolling in. The Southwest Monsoon is more conditions for storms to form, rage and fade than to see a line coming in. I know I can kill a cell, but break a line? Never tried it.” Hal said, looking at the approaching weather.
From behind them, Flashpoint popped in. “You’re going to have to, Hal.”
The two pegasi spun at the sudden words. “Flashpoint? What brings you here?” Soucross asked.
“Mach and Amelia are aboard a G650 north of here that is short on fuel. They cannot divert anywhere within their fuel range, except here. Can you settle things down here long enough for them to at least land?” Flashpoint asked.
“How fast can you get the team pegasi here?” Hal asked in return.
“Good. Bring them here. Colonel Soucross, how soon to scramble a flight?”
“Right now, there is just myself and my adjutant. Like I said, weather like this, we just usually let happen.”
“Damn. Flash, get Sunbeam, Featherdrop, Fairwind and Sunshower down here fast. Colonel, call your adjutant and the tower. I need to know bearings to the incoming plane and which way the storms are coming from.” Hal said quickly. Flashpoint vanished while Colonel Soucross trotted to a phone and started making calls.
Two minutes later, Flashpoint returned with the four pegasi and a team radio, which she gave to Hal, who slipped it on. Colonel Soucross and his adjutant, Captain Rainmaker, stood ready.
“Okay, here is what I am planning. Colonel, you, Rainmaker and Sunbeam work around the airport itself, keeping things as calm as possible. Featherdrop, Fairwind, Sunshower, I want Flashpoint to drop you off at eight kilometer intervals along the line of Mach’s approach. Flash, you monitor Mach’s position, and as soon as they pass one of the pickets, make pickup and bring them back here to reinforce local calm.”
“What are you planning on doing, Major?” Rainmaker asked.
Hal pointed with a wing at the approaching front. “I am going to go out there and see if I can blow a hole in that approaching frontal line big enough to give the airport calm enough conditions long enough for Mach and Amelia to land.”
“You think you can, Major?” Soucross asked.
“If I can bust a force Nine or Ten storm down to a shattered squall, the least I could do here is blow a hole in the Buster’s line of approach, leaving you ponies downwind with less to do. Now, let’s get to it! Time is NOT on our side!” Hal said as he spread his wings.
“No, it is not.” Sunbeam chimed in as he took off with the SAWC members. Flashpoint took the other three to their positions.
As he flew as fast as he could to the oncoming storm, Hal called Mach. “How you two doing out there?”
“Starting to feel some turbulence. Our low fuel indicators are on. We’re about twenty kilometers out, coming in on approach. Nice to hear your voice, Hal.”
“Just happened to be in the area, you know, doing one of my jobs. Have to earn my pay for this expedition. We’ll do our best to give you a good path, up to you two to land that plane safely.”
“I hope so. Ever see a G650 before?”
“Twice, when they were getting avionics updated in Scottsdale. But, toured or flown one, never.”
“You’ll like it. Now, help me get her down!”
“What do you think I’m doing, Mach? Knitting sweaters? I should be in position in a minute or so. Pardon my singing, I need to concentrate.”
“Do it to it, Hal.”
Hal thought about a song as he moved into position, getting a feel for the approaching storm, deciding how to best disrupt its structure. This line storm is much different from the monsoonal storms he normally faced back in Vegas. “Listen to me baby, you’ve got to understand…” he sang quietly as he felt along the advancing line of clouds, looking for a good point to disrupt it. “You’re old enough to know the makings of a man…”
“He’s got a good voice.” Machspeed said quietly to Amelia.
“You ought to hear his band, the Dippy Hippies. Raven played some recordings when they were in Brisbane. That band can tour, if they all didn’t have other jobs.” Amelia replied as she guided the jet around some rain showers.
Mach groaned. “The Dippy Hippies. I know where he got that from.”
“Where?” Amelia asked.
“George Carlin. The hippy dippy weatherman, Al Sleet. I knew there was something familiar about his name…”
“Just a touch before my time, Mach.”
Hal flew closer and closer to the advancing line, feeling the increasing agitation of the air, the mounting wind, the spatters of rain. He found the point he wanted, and at the right time, he triggered his storm breaking ability. “I can’t stop myself… LIGHT… NING… STRI… KING… A… GAIN!” he sang out, in tune and on key.
A solid vertical bolt of lightning leaped from the ground to the cloud, connecting the two with a brilliant incandescent bar of light, the crack of the thunder rattling Hal as he glided down toward the airport, even though he was expecting it, the light blinking out after about five seconds or so.
“Ho-lee…” Sunbeam whistled from where he was flying around the airport, seeing the lightning flash, watching the line of clouds start to collapse, still feeling wind and pressure changes, but the rain curtains were parting, the part heading for the airport falling apart from solid rain to a fog, dissipating in the wind. Sunbeam, Colonel Soucross, Captain Rainmaker and Fairwind could feel that their efforts in keeping the approach clear were easing, the heart of the force coming at them disrupted.
“Sleet to Mach… bring her on in!” Hal panted, the effort having drained much of his strength.
“You sure do have a way of announcing your presence, Hal!” Machspeed said as Amelia put the G650 on final approach.
“Just glad I can help a friend. I want that tour later.” Hal puffed as he back winged for a landing at the SAWC building.
“You got it. Five minutes out. See you after we land.”
It turned out that the G650 was lower on fuel than everyone expected, the plane’s engines shutting down after the wheels touched down, but before it came to a full stop. Amelia and Mach together used the brakes to stop the jet from running off the end of the main runway. Airport authorities had to send a tractor out to pull the plane to a hangar as the Buster pulled itself back together, dumping wind and rain on the airport grounds before passing out of range to the west.
After turning over Parker and Davis to the Sydney authorities for Returnee indoctrination, and before doing all the paperwork required for getting their fair share of the sale of the G650, the ARRRS crew gathered in the SAWC building with Colonel Soucross and Captain Rainmaker. Hal was busy tucking into his third hayburger and fries, storm breaking always giving him an appetite.
“Hal, before you go back to Las Vegas, you have to teach us pegasi in the ARRRS how to do weather mitigation like you do.” Sunbeam said as he sat with Amelia, one wing wrapped around her.
“Not on that scale, but learning more than just simple basics can be useful on rescue flights if the weather sours.” Sunshower added.
Hal looked at Machspeed over a hoof-full of chips. “What you say, Captain Machspeed? Can you afford my teaching rates?” he said with a tired smile.
“Hey! You’re not going to put them ahead of us here in Sydney, are you?” Colonel Soucross added with a bit of a laugh.
“Looks like you are going to be popular as you tour Australia, Hal.” Flashpoint commented.
“Hey, if you are going to be teleporting my family and I around, it will sure save time traveling. Seven weeks on a freighter getting here was not fun. I was submarine force, not a skimmer puke. I’ll have time to teach those groups who ask me some of the Nassie’s team tactics.” Hal said, referring to the group he worked for, the Nevada Aeronautical Survey, or NAS.
“Canberra, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth to go still. Ask nice and I’ll add in Auckland and Wellington.” Flashpoint said.
“Be careful what you offer, Flash. I just might accept.”
“One thing I will be doing is calling ahead to my counterparts around Australia, letting them know about what you did today, Major. I know you will be in high demand by the weather authorities wherever you go.” Colonel Soucross told Hal.
“Only if I can get a good list of contacts before going to the other cities. Friends like you are good to have.” Hal said to the group at large.
“I’m sure that can be arranged, Hal. I’ll see to it later.” Mach said as he spotted Crystal walking their way, with a determined look in her eye. “Uh oh…”
Colonel Soucross also spotted the approaching earth pony. “You’re in for it now, Mach. She’s got blood in her eye.”
“Not to mention papers in her pack.” added Captain Rainmaker.
“Ponies may work from sun to sun, but the paperwork is never done, as my admin sergeant at Nassie says.” Hal added as Crystal closed in.
“Machspeed, you have a bunch of forms to get filled out! Let’s get it started, because my towing crew needs to get paid!” the white and tan earth pony snapped out.
Machspeed groaned a little. “Let’s get it done…” he sighed as the rest of the assembled ponies broke out laughing at Mach’s distress.
Before Mach and Crystal got out of earshot, Hal broke into song. “It’s time to pay the fiddler, and today’s the day the first installment’s due…” which caused the laughter to double and redouble.
There and Back Again by Alden MacManx
Part 1: Last Night, First Night
All good things must come to an end, and tonight was just such a night. For the past eight weeks, Major Hal Sleet, his wife Raven Blacklight, their children Black Onyx and Kaleidoscope, and their housemate and good friend Wordsmythe had been touring Australia, with the aid of their new friend Flashpoint. Teleporting was so much faster than taking a train or ship. The family had readily accepted Flashpoint’s offer to take them back to the Colorado Territories, at least as far as Santijuana. They intended to make a family trip out of the excursion, riding the train from Santijuana through Yuma, Blythe, Havasu, and Riviera before going to Vegas, continuing to Salt Lake City, to add some more destinations to Flashpoint’s list of sure targets for teleportation. The ARRRS had few contacts in the North American continent, and the squad is taking the opportunity to get some.
This night, Machspeed and Flashpoint took the visiting family into Brisbane to one of their favorite restaurants, leaving Black Onyx and Kaleidoscope in the charge of their daughter Starstruck, to give the parents (and uncle) one night alone with adult companionship. At the last minute, Amelia and Sunbeam asked to join the party, which was accepted by all involved.
The meal, as usual for Brantlee’s, was excellent, and the seven ponies were relaxing with after-dinner drinks when Amelia asked a question. “It’s obvious that the three of you get along well. Were you friends before the Event?”
“Hal and I have been best friends for almost twenty years before the Event. Still are now, mostly.” Raven said with a slight menacing edge in her voice, which all knew was in fun, not menace.
“While I knew Hal for about ten years, mostly online, but once every year or so, I would make the drive out from Texas to where Hal lived in Scottsdale. Made a good change from caring for my parents.” Wordsmythe contributed. “I’m glad they will Return healthy, if they have not already.”
“Have you been able to find out?” Sunbeam asked.
“No, not really,” the orange earth pony said with a sigh. “My part of Texas is not exactly the big city. More of a small one.”
“Then, what brought you out to be with Hal and Raven?” Machspeed asked.
A glance went around the three visiting ponies before Wordsmythe went on. “Hal, or Chuck Corso, as he was known then, had called me a week before, saying I should get my backside out there as soon as possible…”
Carl Jones’ pickup truck pulled into the driveway of Chuck Corso’s house in northern Scottsdale, Arizona at about five in the morning. A fifteen-hour drive had left him tired, as it usually did, but he was still wondering why Chuck was so insistent he get out there. The front door opened and Chuck came out.
“Let’s get into my car and head to Einstein’s. Janet’s sleeping now, and I don’t want to wake her up just yet.” Chuck said.
“Okay, Chuck. I can do with a couple of bagels. Just what’s going on?” One thing Carl liked about going to Arizona is the bagel shops. The nearest one to where he lived in Texas was a couple of hundred miles away.
Chuck and Carl got into Chuck’s Chevy Impala. As Chuck turned the key, he said to Carl, “You know Janet moved in with me ever since Brian went into the VA home. We got some news last week. Not good news.” Chuck said.
“What’s happening? The Red Heifer take a turn for the worse?” Carl asked, using his nickname for Brian, someone he did not like very much.
“Worse than that. Janet’s kidneys are failing rapidly. Doctors estimate she has maybe a year left, probably less. She’s to start dialysis next month. A transplant is out of the question, due to her other issues.” Chuck said as he made the left onto Thunderbird Road, heading for the Einstein’s on 40th street.
“So, why you ask me to drop everything and come out here?’
“Starting this weekend, I’m taking several days off from work. We’re going to fly to Vegas, and I’m going to ask Janet to marry me. I want you there as my Best Man. You willing?”
Carl sat there in surprise. “You’re going to marry Janet? I thought you were a confirmed bachelor!”
“I am. Janet has been my best friend now for years, and I want to see her happy. If marrying her and keeping her happy for the rest of her life is what it will take, then, I will do it. She deserves no less.” Chuck said as they pulled into the bagel shop parking lot.
“You really do love her, don’t you?”
“I have for almost twenty years, but I would never get in her way. First, she was married to Ogron, then she left him and went with the Red Heifer. Now that he’s in the hospital with dementia, it’s up to me. I’ve rented a Cessna 182 and we’re going to fly to Vegas after close of business Friday night, coming back Wednesday morning.”
“Where we going to stay at?”
“The MGM Grand. I have a suite reserved, and tickets to some shows. I know Janet wants you there as well. So, you willing?”
“You better believe I am! Janet is a friend of mine, too. If she’s not going to make it, I’m going to help her, too!” Carl said emphatically.
“Good. What bagels do you want? On me.” Chuck said as they went inside. Carl made his selections, Chuck ordered for himself and Janet, and they headed back to Chuck’s house, where Carl made use of the spare bedroom, and Chuck headed in to work at Carver Avionics.
“You truly are a good friend, to head out on a simple request to do so” Flashpoint said to Wordsmythe.
“Well, Hal and Raven are good friends. When Hal said to get out there as soon as possible, I jumped, because he does NOT act that way. Well, he didn’t.” Wordsmythe said.
“I was just a simple avionics technician, willing to live and let live, be who you are in exchange for letting me be me.” Hal said.
“That’s why we became best friends.” Raven chimed in with. “He never tried to change me, and I didn’t try to change him. We supported each other when we needed it.
“When I divorced Gregory, and moved in with Brian, he was there to give me strength. When Brian finally lost to dementia, Chuck offered to have me move in. He didn’t demand, he simply offered. When I said yes, his delight supported my sinking spirits.”
“That was very kind of you, Hal.” Machspeed said to the pegasus.
Hal shrugged his wings some. “I loved her from the minute we met. She was with my best friend, and I would not steal from him. I would not force myself on her, as much as I wanted to, because it would not have been right. Not since my first wife did I love anyone as much as I loved Janet.”
“What happened to her, if I may ask?” Amelia asked.
“She was killed in a traffic accident while I was out at sea on my first sub, the six twenty-four. I got a message four days before the ship pulled in to Holy Loch. I was given an option to be evaced off the Woody Wilson, but I said no. We were going to be back in Connecticut the next week, and she would still be dead.” Hal said sadly. “I was due for a shore rotation after that patrol, but I transferred to Charleston and served five patrols on the six fifty-six, the G.W. Carver, then going to shore duty at the Charleston navy base before discharging and heading home.”
“That was no picnic either.” Raven said. “Two months after coming home, his father died of a lung infection. Four months later, his mother died of cancer. He used some of the life insurance money to finish paying off the house, literally taking over his mother’s job at Carver Avionics, saw his one sister married and the other one graduate high school before they headed out for their own lives.”
“Keeping the house gave me the opportunity to have people over without censure. Paying it off saved on bills, too. Plus, I got paid well as a master avionics technician.” Hal added.
“How did you manage to be together when the Event hit?” Machspeed asked.
“I’m getting to that.” Wordsmythe said.
Before Chuck got off work that Friday afternoon, Janet fell ill and Carl rushed her to the hospital emergency room. Fortunately, the ailment was easily treated, but it wasn’t until after ten that night before Janet was released. It was shortly after midnight, Saturday, May 23rd, 2015 when the Cessna 182 took off from Scottsdale Airport, destination Henderson Executive Airport outside of Las Vegas.
The night was clear and the stars bright as they flew northwestward, Chuck following the few lights on US Highway 93 from Phoenix to Wickenburg, then north to the Interstate 40, over to Kingman and up to Vegas. “I’ve known you for over ten years, and we’ve been to Vegas together several times, but this is the first time we flew, instead of drove.” Carl said, looking out the window at the beam of light coming from the Luxor, the city still hidden beyond a mountain range.
“Haven’t had the need to before. Now, I don’t want to spend six hours doing something I can do in less than three.” Chuck said, glancing at Janet dozing in the back seat.
“It is faster, and a bit different. Too bad you can’t fly out to Texas to get me.”
“I’ll have to land once to refuel about a hundred or so miles from your place. Top off again there, then land again in Tucson to refuel. Believe me, with the price of avgas, driving is cheaper.” Chuck said as they crested the last mountain range before their destination, the lights of Vegas spread in the valley below. “Besides, you need your truck to get around while I’m at work.”
“You do have a point there, Chuck.”
“Wake up Janet while I call the airport, Carl. She will want to see this.” Chuck said, putting on the combination headset and microphone.
Carl reached into the back seat and gently shook Janet. “Hey, Birdie, wake up. We’re almost there.”
Janet snorted and opened her eyes. “Wow… that’s some sight! What time is it?” she asked.
Carl checked his watch. “Just coming on three. We’ll be landing in a few minutes. Chuck wanted you to see this.”
“I’m glad you woke me up. This is some sight.” Janet said as she picked up her phone and started taking some pictures as Chuck verified getting on final approach for landing.
Chuck landed the plane and taxied to a tie-down spot. The clock on the dash clicked over to 3:14 am, Saturday May 23rd, 2015. As Janet filmed video of the lights, especially the bright beacon of Luxor, the dark of night suddenly changed to the light of day, the sun just over the mountain range to the east.
All three people screamed in surprise, because they quickly discovered they were no longer people, but horses of some sort. Janet found herself a lustrous black unicorn, with a purple horn, hooves and mane. Carl found himself a burly dark red horse with a rusty orange mane, while Chuck was slate gray with a mane of several different colors, blue, red, orange, yellow and green. His shirt bulged oddly at the back, too.
Chuck shouted something distinctly profane in Italian, his headset slipping some on his head. “What in hell happened?”
“It has to be some sort of magic, Chuck. Good magic. I have not felt this good in years!” Janet said from the back seat, sounding elated.
“Well, maybe this magic could help us open the doors, because I can’t get a grip on it.” Carl grumbled.
“I think we have another problem. We’re not in Vegas anymore.” Chuck said, waving a hoof around. Outside the plane was a vast stretch of desert terrain, with no sign of the airport that was there seconds before.
“Yes, we are, Chuck. Look this way.” Carl said.
Everyone looked in the direction Carl indicated, to see the Stratosphere Tower glittering brightly in the morning sunlight a few miles away. “Where did everything go?” Janet wondered.
“I don’t know, but I’m going to try the radio. My back aches.” Chuck grumbled, fighting to get the microphone switch pressed without a thumb.
“Henderson Control, this is Two Juliet Mike, do you copy?” No response came to Chuck’s ears. “Henderson Control, this is Two Juliet Mike, do you hear me?”
“Isn’t there an emergency frequency you can dial in to the radio, Chuck?” Carl asked.
“There is. I just hope I can throw the switches to change things.”
“I got my pocket tool kit, Chuck. Maybe I can work the pliers with my mouth, or both hooves.”
“Worth a try. Or better yet, a pen or something. I need to change frequencies. I got one in my shirt pocket. Can you reach it?” Chuck asked, leaning over to his right.
Carl leaned to his left, twisting his head to grab the pen. When he did, Chuck indicated the radio selector. “Keep pushing that until I say stop.” Clumsily, Carl managed the feat. “Okay, my turn.”
“Mayday, Mayday, Mayday. This is Two Juliet Mike calling anyone who is listening. Something weird has happened, and I am unable to operate the plane. Send help, please.” Chuck said into the mic.
“Two Juliet Mike, this is Nellis Operations. What is your location and status?” came a woman’s voice over Chuck’s headset.
“Nellis Operations, Two Juliet Mike. We had just landed at Henderson Executive Airport when everything changed, including the three of us.” Chuck reported.
“Okay, Two Juliet Mike. Just stay put and somepony will be down there in just a few minutes. Keep calm and don’t panic, okay? You’re in good hooves now.” said the voice on the radio.
“Somepony? Good hooves? I don’t understand.” Chuck said, getting more confused by the second.
“You will, Two Juliet Mike. I’ve called for the Dust Devils. They will be there soon. Is your engine still running? I hear a roar in the background.”
“Nellis Operations, Two Juliet Mike. Yes, it is. We had just landed, and had taxied to a tie down spot when everything changed.”
“Well, when help arrives, shut off the engine. You can get a lot of money for your fuel and your plane. Where did you take off from, and what plane do you have?”
“We took off from Scottsdale Airport a little before midnight. Two Juliet Mike is a Cessna 182. Tanks should be about half full. Get a lot of money? What do you mean?” Chuck asked.
“Some time has elapsed since you landed, Two Juliet Mike. Like about thirty-two hundred years.”
“Thirty. Two. Hundred. YEARS?” Chuck squeaked, getting the attention of Carl and Janet.
“That’s right. The Dust Devils will be there in a moment. They rescue ponies like you. You’ll be well taken care of. They’re good at what they do.” Nellis Control said as a group of horses appeared about a hundred feet in front of the plane. After a brief pause, Chuck heard, “Shut your motor off now, please.”
“Finished with engines, aye.” Chuck said quietly, throttling back the engine and shutting down the plane. “Engines off.”
“Our first meeting with the Dust Devils was a bit anticlimactic.” Raven said with a small smile. “When Ace opened the doors and unbuckled the belts, both Chuck and Carl fell out and faceplanted in the sand. Imagine our surprise when Chuck’s wings came out from under his shirt.”
“Raven, not in front of us!” Hal and Wordsmythe chorused, with identical grimaces.
When the laughter died down, Raven went on. “We were taken to the retraining and re-education center, where we learned how to be ponies. I was the fastest through basic, then Carl, then Chuck. We decided to stay together, because we all cared for each other both before and after. Every ailment I had while human went away when I became a unicorn.”
“Other than the kidney failure, what did you have?” Sunbeam asked.
“Lupus, cancer once, scoliosis in my back, and a bad vertebra. I was in a wheelchair most of the time. Not anymore!” Raven said with a smile.
“It’s so good, seeing her move without pain. Same with me.” Hal said. “I was the oldest of the bunch of us. Some days, I felt every year. I’m glad my job did not put too much strain on me.”
“What did you do after indoctrination?” Machspeed asked, sipping his beer.
“We got an apartment together while we went to our species training. I went to Bummer, Hal to Poofta, and Wordsmythe to Creep. Hal found his talent for weather control there, I settled into magic design, and Wordy found he has a dab hoof in making things grow, be they plants or ideas.” Raven told the group.
The words led to confusion among the Australians. “Bummer?” Flashpoint asked.
Raven had the grace to look embarrassed. “Sorry. There are three main Returnee training schools in Las Vegas. Pegasus Flight Training Academy, the P.F.T.A., is referred to as ‘poofta’ by many. ‘Bummer’ is for the Brotherhood of Unicorns Magic Association, or B.U.M.A, and ‘Creep’ is the Center for Rehabilitation and Education of Earth Ponies. Whoever thought of those names centuries ago had to have been a Returnee.”
“I can see why.” Sunbeam said.
Amelia looked to Hal. “Is there a rule number six?”
Hal looked back at Amelia coolly. “There IS no rule number six!” he said. “We use that for unforeseen circumstances.”
“Like when your old boss in the NAS tried to overthrow his boss and take his place last year.” Wordsmythe said.
Hal grimaced a little and nodded. “Yeah. He tried to amp up a storm and take out the Stratosphere Tower. Lucky for all I was Duty Officer that day, and got wind of his plans early. Wordy’s girlfriend overheard something weeks before, she told him, and he told me. When everything fit together, I took steps to put the kibosh on his plans.”
“And spent a week in a body cast and a month in hospital after you busted that storm.” Raven said drily. “Sent me into labor two days early.”
“A week in a body cast? Must have been one rough landing.” Sunbeam said.
“The bolt was more powerful than I had expected. I could not have been more than fifty feet away from it. The thunderclap knocked me out and dislocated my wing shoulder. When I woke up, I could just barely level out. I didn’t notice, in the wind, rain and dark, just how low I was.”
“You damn near died, Hal. In fact, you DID die, but Green Mane managed to resuscitate you.” Raven said with a hint of bitterness. “If Ace didn’t have a fix on you, you would have been found on the sands, dead.”
Hal blushed some. “Well, my mother gave me a choice. I decided to stay here and raise my children. I wasn’t ready to leave you just yet. She was a pegasus, too, which confused me.”
“I thought your mother had died before the Event. How could she be a pegasus?” Flashpoint asked.
“Damned if I know. All I can report is what I saw. She shoved two of her wing feathers up my nose. That HURT!” Hal said before having a slug of beer.
“Near-death experiences don’t have to be logical. They just are.” Raven said.
“So, what did you wind up doing after you finished your secondary schools?” Sunbeam asked.
A glance bounced around the three visitors before Wordsmythe spoke. “The proceeds from the sale of the plane set us up in fine fashion. Hal bought a nice villa on a hillside near Lake Las Vegas, uphill from the town. I got a job at City Hall, working in the records department.
“Vegas keeps extensive records on Returnees, carefully interviewing them and getting data on who they were, what they were doing and so on, in case others of the group return, or, if residents, family members. I also got a side job writing articles for the Review-Journal, the local newspaper, and occasionally do newsreel features.”
“While I stayed on at BUMA, learning more about my magic. I got adept with telekinesis, and started working on other spells. I have five new ones to my credit so far, chasing ideas that I have had for a long time. I’m a Professor now at BUMA, on leave while touring with the family and kids.” Raven supplied.
“New spells are right, la bruja pendeja. I decided to follow a passion of mine, music. I had an extensive collection on my laptop, and sold many to Las Vegas Radio Services. I parlayed that into a job doing part-time on-air work, as well as doing technical repairs of the transmitters in the Strat Tower.
“I also tested well in Weather Control, serving in the Nassie’s Monsoon Control team my first year there, learning team methods, tactics, and how to use my weather control skills. I got my butt print when during that first summer, I managed to kill a storm cell with one of the bolts like you saw in Sydney. Let me tell you, Colonel Stormcloud was impressed, and repeatedly requested that I join Weather Control full time. But, I like working at Las Vegas Radio Two, playing music from the mid-fifties to the mid-eighties,” Hal explained.
“He went from a weekend gig to a full-time spot that first winter, and got the afternoon slot the following spring, mixing music with commentary and jabs at the community politicians and big shots, calling things as he saw them. His popularity has soared with the populace, and now he’s the number-one rated deejay in Vegas,” Wordsmythe explained.
“Then, how did you get conned into a months-long expedition to Australia?” Machspeed asked wonderingly.
“Two reasons. One, I have always wanted to see Australia, being a big fan of both footy and Paul Hogan. Two, Blue Blizzard asked. He rewrote the book on weather control procedures in the Vegas area,” Hal explained.
“He may not be able to READ it anymore, but yes, he wrote it.” Raven said, just a little snarkily.
“Hey, after I saved his bacon last year when Colonel Hard Ass decided to try a power play, and damn near destroyed the Stratosphere Tower in the process, he decided to make my commission in the Aeronautical Survey permanent, while sending me here to see if anyone else in near-similar environments to Vegas and the American West had other ideas on weather control,” Hal said before snorting some. “Looks like I have been the one bringing innovation here, rather than finding it.”
“I still think it was a good trip, Hal. I got a kick out of you hanging over the rail for three days on the freighter,” Wordsmythe said as Hal blushed some.
Raven added, “I don’t think I have ever seen that shade of green on a pony’s face before. I know the kids haven’t.”
Hal hid behind a mug as the others laughed. “So, I get seasick. It’s not unknown. Subs travel UNDER the waves, not THROUGH them.”
“But barfing for three days straight? That must be a record. You told me one time the Wilson was taking forty-five-degree rolls while going into Holy Loch, and you took it without problems,” Wordsmythe said, hiding (not very successfully) a smile.
“Yeah, but I wasn’t watching water moving the whole time. I was watching people flying through the berthing spaces. I’m just glad I had a bottom bunk.”
“While I’m glad we will be teleporting back. Thank you so very much for agreeing to do so, Flashpoint,” Raven said to her fellow unicorn.
“We have been wanting more and better contacts in North America. We don’t have many now.”
“Many?” Mach countered his wife. “We have one. The only reason why we have it is that we wanted to go to sea on our honeymoon. Not half a day after arriving in Santijuana, I get a call for a A320 heading out of Auckland. We handled that job, and never really thought of going back.”
“The time zones will be against us,” Amelia added. “what with the distances involved. What is early morning there will be late evening for us. We may not be able to scramble there fast enough to be effective.”
“Still, it would be good to have you on call, in case Ace can’t get matters handled in time. We had a jet pancake at Nellis last spring. Definitely not fun. I saw the smoke plume from the studio.” Hal said, shivering some.
“That’s our job to do. I’m sure your folk have good skills, but we have Flashpoint.” Machspeed said.
Amelia jumped in with, “Not to mention the rest of the team.”
“If and when I can ever get to the same level of skill as Flashpoint, you just might have a rival in business,” Raven said, eyes twinkling and her horn sparkling a little.
“A rivalry I can live with, Raven. You’re picking up the teleport spell readily enough. It’s the scan portion that is giving you fits.”
“Yeah,” Raven snorted before sipping from her wine. “I’ve got your talents diagrammed out, it’s finding a way to make it mesh for me that is giving me hornaches.”
“You’ll get there. I’m sure of it.” Machspeed said before stealing a look at the clock. “If you’re wanting to be in Santijuana at nine in the morning, we’re going to have to leave at two a.m. here.”
“It’s seven p.m. now. I think we can all get a nap in, unless someone wound up Onyx and Kalie.” Wordsmythe said, finishing his beer.
“You’ve shown us your home, allow us to return the compliment,” Hal told his hosts.
“I’ve flown in to Las Vegas a few times, working for Qantas.” Amelia said.
Hal looked at Amelia. “It’s a lot different. The Old City is pretty much gone, the center of business having shifted to the shores of Lake Las Vegas, a bit to the east, not quite to Lake Mead. The only things still going in the Old City area are the Stratosphere Tower and Nellis Field,” he said quietly. “It’s a bit of a shock.”
“Before we go, I want to ask you a couple of questions,” Sunbeam said as Machspeed went to pay the bill.
“Go right on ahead, Beamer.” Raven said.
“When did you find out that Hal wanted to marry you, why did you change your names, and what happened to the overthrow attempt you mentioned?”
Raven handled the first part. “It was after we had all graduated the secondary schools. We had settled into the villa, we all started our jobs, and were getting back to a normal life. When Hal said he wanted to marry me, it was not much of a surprise. I knew how much he cared for me, and it just seemed the right thing to do. Besides, it helped me be able to control this wild stallion!”
Hal shot Raven a smoky Look as he answered the second part. “After graduating Basic, we all decided at once to change our names. I chose the one I did because of my weather-related abilities, Janet became Raven Blacklight, and Carl originally wanted Wordsmith, but that was already taken, so he chose Wordsmythe. We weren’t the same people as before the Event, so why keep the same names?”
Wordy handled the third part as Mach came back from paying the bill. “Mayor Good Deal was so grateful to Hal for saving the Stratosphere, he offered Hal command of the Weather Department.”
“I said that I would accept, if he would allow me to jam a lightning bolt so far up his ass he could pick his teeth with it!” Hal said to much laughter. “I told him that I wanted to stay just what I was, a radio deejay who put politicians in their places. He accepted that, and struck back at me later.”
“I can get you the newsreel of the dinner and roast the city put on for Hal after he recovered.” Wordy said with an evil grin.
“Oh, no, you won’t! I’ll have Archives burn every single print of that!” Hal protested, his ears turning reddish.
“Now, why would that be?” Amelia asked innocently.
“The roast was payback for all the heckling Hal has done to the movers and shakers of Las Vegas for the past five years. The Mayor did say when he visited Hal in the hospital that he would throw the first pie. He did. The first of about a hundred.” Raven said, trying not to laugh.
“You helped them with that hold pony spell you put on me! For two minutes, I could not move!”
Wordy laughed some more. “Not to mention being covered head to tail with pie filling. Took groomers half an hour to clean you up!”
“Oh, that HAD to have been a sight…” Machspeed said.
“I’ll get you a copy of the newsreel.” Wordy said. “One advantage to working both for the Records department AND the news service.”
“You do that, Wordy, and I’ll fly you out to Goodsprings and make you walk home!”
“You could not even lift me, Hal.”
“That’s beside the point!” Hal shouted to the other’s laughter as they left Brentlee’s.
Live on, Birdie, if only in my tales. Miss you a lot, best friend.
Jump to top
Part 2: Transitus Interruptus
It was past midnight in Brisbane when the group heading back to the Colorado Territories was woken up. It was a somewhat groggy bunch that made sure the saddlebags were packed, as well as a small cart laden with souvenirs and awards they had received on the trip. Fortunately, Machspeed had some strong coffee in stock at the house, so, by the time they had to leave, almost all were alert, the exception being the younger contingent, Starstruck, Black Onyx and Kaleidoscope.
Before departing, Machspeed called Amelia to him. “Get the crystal Raven made for you, please,” he asked. When she brought it out, he tapped an identical crystal he had to hers. “While I’m away, you are in charge. If a call comes in, tap your crystal. It will cause mine to chime. If I can call you immediately, I will tap once. If not, I will tap twice. If it is real urgent, tap repeatedly for ten seconds. Flashpoint will teleport us back home to assist. Got it?”
“Got it, Mach. How long do you plan on being away?” Amelia asked.
‘I’m hoping for a week, to fix Santijuana, Yuma, Vegas and Salt Lake City in Flashpoint’s target list.”
“It’s the site of a former military base. It has the longest runways in the area. I want to add Tucson, but I don’t think the rail schedules will fit. There are trains between the cities, but service from Tucson direct to Vegas is somewhat sporadic, ever since they pretty much abandoned Phoenix. Tucson has good runways, too.”
“Here’s hoping, Mach.” Amelia said seriously, then grabbed Mach by the jacket and pulled his face to hers. “Don’t forget to call me if needed…”
“I won’t. Believe me, I won’t…” Mach gasped as Amelia let go.
“Good. I don’t want to miss out on any fun!”
“You won’t, Captain Amelia. You’re in the saddle now.”
Somewhat groggily, Onyx and Kalie wandered up to Amelia for a good-bye snuggle before Raven picked them up, putting the sleepy unicorn colt on her back and the drowsy pegasus filly onto Hal’s. “Let’s get this show on the road, ponies,” she said.
“Sounds good to me. Gather round, everyone.” Flashpoint announced. The departing party jostled some, to get in contact with her before she activated her teleportation, and the group disappeared, to reappear in the mid-morning light of Santijuana, on a pier.
“Okay, I know where we are. The train station should be two miles that way.” Hal said, pointing with a wing south and east.
“Let’s get going,” Wordy said, starting to walk in that direction. “If I remember right, there is an eastbound train leaving at eleven. Should arrive in Yuma by five. We can overnight there, or take a night train north.”
“One step at a time, Wordy,” Machspeed told the burly earth pony. “We’ll need to place mana beacons in Yuma and hopefully Tucson. With the old air force bases that way, it would be good for us to at least make contact.”
“Okay. While you and Hal get the tickets, I’ll try to find train schedules. Just remember, out here, train schedules are more a hope than actual times. Sometimes they are early, others late. Bank more on late than early.”
“I know the feeling, Wordy. The only transport that can be relied on is IRT, and they are NOT cheap.” Machspeed replied, referring to Interurban Rapid Transit, a company run by a family of unicorns who can open telegates between places. The main trouble with using them, if you can pay their rates, is if they can put you where you want to go. More than likely, you’ll have some more traveling to do, but a lot less than not using them.
“No, they are not. Blizz considered using them to send us to Brisbane, but when he got a quote, he put us on that freighter,” Hal said as he walked.
“At least he paid for the train, Hal. He is a good pony to know.” Raven retorted.
“Even though he can’t squeeze water out of a wet sponge now. He is a canny politician. Has to be, to remain as head of the Nevada Aeronautical Survey for the past fifty years.”
“You know Kalie likes him.”
“Heck, I do too. He’s a good old duffer who should have retired a decade ago. But, he doesn’t want to.”
Wordy jumped in to the conflict. “Back off, you two! I know you’re cranky and time-lagged. You can nap on the train!”
“Yes, Wordy,” the bickering couple chorused.
Machspeed whispered to Wordy, “Are they usually like this when cranky?”
“Only when they are together.”
Upon arriving at the train station, they were surprised to find the train not only there, but getting ready to leave. Hal bought first class tickets, Wordy got a schedule, and once everyone had boarded, the train pulled out, destination El Centro and Yuma. All eight of the ponies slept soundly, if a little uncomfortably, as the train stopped in El Centro for an hour, loading and offloading passengers and freight, before resuming its journey to Yuma, arriving at about five that afternoon. By then, everypony was up and hungry, and descended on the train station restaurant for a healthy dinner before finding the hotel and checking in.
Before leaving the station, Machspeed picked up another schedule, finding out that another train company ran in the Colorado Territories, different than from New Angeles. A little checking showed that they could go to Tucson the next day, arriving mid-afternoon and changing trains later that day for the trip through Phoenix, Flagstaff, Kingman, and Riviera before arriving in Las Vegas sometime the day after next. Mach thought about calling Hal to discuss plans when a knock sounded from the door.
Starstruck got the door, she being nearest. Hal was outside. “Mach, want to head to the airport? Maybe you can get some contacts there, and I want to meet Weather Control.”
Mach looked at his wife and daughter. “Sounds like a good idea to me. Would you be all right here, Starstruck? We may be gone a couple of hours.”
Starstruck held up a book. “I can keep myself out of trouble, Dad. If anything happens, I’ll ask Raven for help.”
Flashpoint smiled at her daughter’s words. “Saves us from having to say it.”
“Knew you were smart, Starry,” Machspeed said. “You know where to go, Hal?”
“Yes, I do. It’s not too far away. Just not much traffic here.”
“Here?” Mach snorted. “Not much traffic anywhere.”
“Don’t I know it. Maybe I should go for my twin license. Up at Nellis, they have some of the new DC-3 copies. I’m sure I can refresh my training there.”
“Out for Mach’s job, Hal?” Flashpoint said with a laugh.
“No way! I have too much to do without doing that. Besides, I never learned how to fly jets. It’s just having been working with you these last couple months make me want to try to get back in harness again. Just because I’m a pegasus now doesn’t mean I won’t sneer at other means of flight,” Hal said as they approached the airport gates. “I have been around planes all my life. Why stop now?”
“Good point, Hal.” Machspeed agreed as they got to the gate to the airport.
Hal went up to the guard post. “I’m Major Sleet, Nevada Aeronautical Survey, Station Victor. Which way to the Station Yankee building?” he asked the guard, an earth pony of quite impressive stature.
“Over that way,” the guard said, pointing with a hoof. “You’re the pony that got pie-eyed big time last year, yeah? Saw the newsreel.”
Hal looked like he was going to melt as Mach and Flashpoint laughed. “Yeah, that was me. I have yet to get even with the wife over that. These two clowns are Machspeed and Flashpoint, from the Aeronautical Returnee Rescue Response Squad, from Australia. Who is in charge at the tower?”
“Telegraphony, the manager’s apprentice. She drew the overnights this week.”
“Is it permitted to visit the tower?” Flashpoint asked.
“Yeah. I’ll phone ahead, so she can unlock the door.”
“Sounds good to me.”
“Who’s on duty tonight at the station?” Hal asked.
“Captain Radigan and Number Four squad.”
“Good! I’ve spoken to Raddie before. Can you let him know I’m here?”
“I can, pie-eye,” the guard said with a snort.
Hal looked to the clear early evening sky. “Why must I be remembered for THAT?” he groaned as all three laughed, splitting up to head to their destinations while the guard made some phone calls.
Machspeed and Flashpoint found the door to the small tower unlocked, so, up the stairs they went. Atop the tower, they found a pink pegasus filly with green mane, tail and wings at the radio. “Oliver Five, this is Yuma Tower. Say again, please.”
“Yuma Tower, Oliver Five. We are a KC-135 out of Sky Harbor out to do night refueling operations over the proving grounds. Something happened, and, well…. We’re all weird horses!” the voice over the radio said, sounding close to panic.
“Looks like we got here at a good time.” Flashpoint murmured to Machspeed.
“Got that right,” he replied.
Telegraphony asked, “Oliver Five, what is your location?”
“Yuma Tower, when this happened, we were about twenty-five miles south of Gila Bend, heading two seven zero. Autopilot still has control. What do we do? We’re full of fuel up here!”
Machspeed came up alongside Telegraphony. “Allow me, this is my stock in trade. Get on the radar and get me a fix on them, please.”
Telegraphony jumped, a wing nearly whacking Mach on the horn. “Oh, you’re here. Please, if you know what to do, then show me how to do it.”
“I’ll do what I can to show you, but first, we have a plane to get down.” Mach said as he took the microphone. “Oliver Five, I am Captain Machspeed of the Aeronautical Returnee Rescue Response Squad. Rescuing aircraft like yours is what I do for a living. Once you show up on our radar here, I can get a fix on you and come up to assist.”
“Just how do you plan on doing that, Captain?”
“Magic has arrived, and we know how to use it. My wife is a very skilled teleporter, and once you show on our radar, she can get a fix on you, and we can get out there to help you.”
“Hope you can land a flying gas station, Captain Machspeed.”
“I was in the Royal Australian Air Force before retiring. After that, a commercial pilot. I’m pretty sure I can land a KC-135.”
“Mach, we have contact. Range seventy-five miles, bearing zero-seven-two. I have a fix on them.”
“Right, Flash,” Mach said before going back to the radio. “Oliver Five, just keep flying straight and level. We will be there in two minutes or so.”
“Oliver Five ten-four.”
Mach then turned to Telegraphony. The young pegasus was out of her depth, knew it, and was glad for the help. “I want you to call Weather Control here and have Major Sleet report to the tower. After that, call the airport manager and let him know that you have an inbound aircraft. We’re going to need some lights turned on for nav aids.”
“Her… she’s my grandmother. I’ll let her know. She should be here before you land.” Telegraphony said.
“Her, then. Also, alert whatever authorities you have here for Returnees and let them know some will be coming in.”
“Good! Flash, let’s do this.”
Flashpoint moved next to her husband. “Doing,” she said before doing so.
They reappeared on the flight deck of the aircraft. “Hello, ponies, welcome to the future! I’m Captain Machspeed, and this is my wife, Flashpoint. Who might you be?” Mach asked cheerfully.
The two ponies in the flight positions, a unicorn pilot and a pegasus copilot, both turned to look at the two unicorns, their eyes a little glassy. The copilot dropped the microphone he was holding in both hooves. “I’m First Lieutenant Williams, and that is Captain Collins. We are both in the Arizona Air National Guard, 161st Refueling Wing, out of Goldwater Air National Guard base in Phoenix. Sergeant Rockford is in the back, and we have not heard from him. Will we get out of this alive?” the white pegasus asked.
“Yes, you will, one way or another, we’ll get you down. First thing is to get you two out of those seats and back into the cabin,” Machspeed told the ponies. Mach’s horn glowed, and the seat belts on both pilots opened. Mach lifted Collins, and Flash lifted Williams, moving them both to the cabin.
“Flash, you handle the new ponies, and check on the sergeant. I have a flying gas tank to land!” Machspeed said as he went to the cockpit, settling himself in to the pilot’s seat, putting on the radio headset.
“Machspeed to Yuma Tower, do you hear me?”
“Mach, this is Hal. Read you five by. The tower operator is calling the manager, and I have the duty weather teams available. What’s your status?”
“Everything nominal for now. Situation under control, three ponies aboard. At this speed, I should be in your area within fifteen minutes. Can you get the runway lit?”
“I’ll do my best. If not one way, in another way.”
“How long is the landing strip?” Mach asked.
There was a pause before Hal replied. “Mach, it’s a nine-thousand-foot strip, but only the southern five thousand feet can be declared truly safe. The northern four thousand feet has not been cleaned off in several months, so it’s likely to be a little rough.”
“This tanker has full tanks, so it’s going to take a little while to stop. I hope that north end isn’t too bad.”
“It’s rough enough, with lots of drifted sand.” A different voice said over the radio. “No rocks, but you had best have a steady hoof on the wheel as you do your roll out, buddy.”
“I’ll remember that. Who am I talking to?”
“Captain Radigan of the Sonoran Weather Arizona Control Teams. We always have our swact together. I’ve been around here now for going on forty years. That runway is stable, just not all clean. We don’t get many Returning planes coming in here. Most go to Tucson. They’re better equipped there.”
“What are the chances I can get to Tucson?”
“Pretty damn good. If I remember those tankers right, you can be there in about half an hour. Steer zero-nine-five and keep on that heading until Tucson picks you up. I’ll give them boys a ring once you’re headin’ the right way.”
“Sounds good to me, Captain Radigan. Disengaging autopilot, turning to zero-nine-five.”
“Good to hear, Captain Machspeed. If given a choice between here and Tucson, I would land there every time, especially with a fully loaded flyin’ explosion waitin’ to happen.”
“Mach, this is Hal. I’ll handle explanations here, and I’ll look after Starry until you get back.”
“Saves me from asking, Major. I’ll be back when I can. Right now, I got a big touchy bird to handle.”
“This is Radigan. Stay on this frequency, I’ll tell Tucson, and they will call you. They got the better stuff, anyway,” he finished with a grumble.
“Ten-four, Captain Radigan. I’d like to see you after this is done.”
“What a coincidence. I want to meet you too. Safe flying.”
“Right. I’ll need it. Oliver Five ten-ten.”
“Mach, everything is stable back here. The boom operator is now a zebra, and in more shock than the captain is. All three are resting comfortably in the cabin, and the Lieutenant is talking. What’s the course change for?” Flashpoint asked.
“Yuma advised us to divert to Tucson. Runway in Yuma only has five thousand feet clear. Captain Radigan is calling ahead to alert Tucson. Better equipment there, he says.” Mach told his wife as he steadied the tanker on course.
“Okay, I’ll let them know. Just one thing… should I go get Amelia?”
Mach gave it some thought before replying. “Not right now. I think I have this. I’ll let her yell when we get back.”
“It’s your tail end, not mine.” Flashpoint laughed as she headed back to her charges.
Mach sat back and contemplated the night sky he was flying through. For a spring evening, the weather was clear and cool, with a breeze from the north. The stars shone bright at this altitude as the plane raced east. “This is why I like to fly,” Mach thought. “The peace and beauty can hardly be found on the ground, unless you’re lucky. I sure am very, very lucky.”
A squawk from the radio interrupted Mach’s reverie. “Oliver Five, this is Monthan Base. Do you copy?”
“Read you five by, Monthan. This is Captain Machspeed of the A-triple-R-S piloting.”
“Machspeed, I’ve heard about you. Didn’t you rescue a blimp outside of Rome a couple of months back?”
“Yes, I did. How did you hear of it?”
“I’m Marco Voltefiore. My cousin Leonardo Saldacci is airport manager in Rome. He told his mother, who told her mother, who called my mother, who told me. Even though my mother left Rome forty years ago, she still keeps in touch with Granmama Rosa.”
“So, my reputation precedes me. May I live up to it. Do you have me on radar?”
“Yes, I do, Captain Machspeed. You’re about fifty miles west-northwest of Monthan. Come to course one-three-five. I’m going to have you circle the base to get a good judge on what wind we have blowing until I can get all the lights and apparatus set up. Once we’re set, you can bring her in on runway three-two left.”
“Sounds good to me, Monthan Base. Are you the manager there?”
“The one on duty. Thanks to all the military traffic going on at the Event, we are the primary go-to place for larger aircraft for the better part of a thousand miles in all directions. Farther north, there’s Las Vegas and Salt Lick. We here at the Boneyard keep this place ready for new arrivals. There are other strips in between, but we’re best equipped to handle problem situations.” Marco explained.
“Maybe we can make an arrangement between my organization and yours. Coming to one-three-five.”
“Like you said, your reputation precedes you. Leonardo went on and on about how you and your team got that blimp down without damage or injury. The airport made a big chunk of change from selling off the components and gases.”
“I know. We got our share. What do you think we can get for this?” Mach asked.
“A tanker full of aviation fuel? Quite a bit. That is, if we can land the thing intact.”
“Believe me, Marco, I am hoping for the same thing. Where am I now?”
“Look ahead of you and to the left. You should see our lights coming on.”
Mach looked left as a double row of electric lights came on, a double row with a few gaps in them. “I see you, Monthan Base.”
“Good! Now, settle into a holding pattern while we get emergency vehicles into position. Maintain five thousand feet altitude as you circle. Everything should be in place within fifteen minutes.”
“Oliver Five going into holding pattern.”
“Are we there yet, Captain?” came a voice from behind him, the voice of Lieutenant Williams.
“In a holding pattern while they ready emergency equipment. How are you feeling?”
“Shaky, but stable. I’m willing to help, if you want.”
“Get up here and help me through the landing checklist. I’ll get us down, don’t you worry,” Machspeed told the new pegasus.
“After what happened today, I’m not worried about anything.” Williams said as he crawled his way to the copilot seat.
“Good to hear.” Together, they went through the landing checklist while Monthan Base got themselves ready. When all WAS set, Mach brought the KC-135 in for a textbook landing, coming to a stop before the end of the runway. Mach taxied the jet to a designated hangar, emergency vehicles trailing behind.
When the plane came to a halt, Williams asked one question. “How are we going to get down from here?”
Machspeed smiled as he got up. “More magic, of course. Soon, you will be able to fly with your wings. If you don’t believe me, look out there.”
Williams looked out the cockpit window to see not one, but two pegasi fluttering around the KC-135, doing a detailed inspection of the tanker jet. “Ho-lee…” he breathed. “I can do that, too?”
Machspeed chuckled as he helped Williams out of the copilot’s seat. “Not right now, but in time, oh, yes. Let’s get you handed off to the authorities here, who will see to your rehabilitation as a pony.”
“I love flying. Now, I can fly on my own… wonder of wonders…” Williams said quietly as he was led to the access hatch. “How can we get down?”
“Flashpoint will get me down. As for you, time for your first free flight. Don’t panic.” Mach enveloped the new pegasus in the green glow from his horn, lifting him up off the cabin floor, out through the door, and down to the ground. “Easy enough, eh?”
“That was impressive!” Williams called back up as two ponies approached him.
“You think that was good?” Mach called down as Flashpoint appeared next to him. “Watch this!” Within two breaths, Mach and Flash were next to Williams.
“That’s not impressive, that’s impossible!” Williams squawked, his new wings ruffling some.
“You’ll be believing a lot if impossible things before breakfast, Williams. I believe these two ponies will take you to the Tucson Rehabilitation Center, or whatever they call it here.”
“We call it the Tucson Hall for Incoming Survivors,” one of the two ponies, a bright yellow earth pony mare said.
“Butt, why?” Williams asked, with a smile.
The other pony, a green and blue pegasus stallion, handled the response. “Good come back. You seem to be adapting easier than the other two are.”
“I’m not leaving much behind. My Air National Guard service helped me, but my regular job wasn’t supporting me well. I’m glad to be here now instead of there,” Williams told the pair.
“Good. Come with us, and we’ll see about getting you and the others situated for the night,” the earth pony said.
Flashpoint asked a question as the trio started to walk off, the earth pony gently supporting Williams. “Who came up with that ridiculous name for the Returnee center?”
The pegasus stallion handled that. “A returnee about nine centuries ago who took the name Alphabet Soup. She got the place organized and set up, and we’ve kept it going. Nobody’s had the heart to change it.”
“I wonder if she made it to Las Vegas. Some of their names are equally strange.”
“She did,” the two chorused as they led Williams off.
“Now, who do we see about getting paid?” Mach asked.
“That would be me,” came a voice from above as a crimson pegasus with white mane, tail and wings landed next to the pair of unicorns. “Marco Voltefiore, at your service. Nice job getting the jet down. Come with me and we’ll get the paperwork going.”
Five hours later, a weary Mach and Flash teleported back to Yuma, to Hal’s room, because that was where the beacon was. They found everyone asleep, including Starstruck, who was sleeping with the children. As they took a cautious step, Wordy opened his eyes. “About time you got back.”
“Ponies may work from sun to sun, but the paperwork is never done.” Mach said.
“How did it go?”
“Very well. Plane down intact, everyone safe, and we have a contract with Monthan Field to be on call if they feel we can be of help,” Flash said in a whisper.
“Good. I have us booked on the afternoon train north to Blythe, Parker, Havasu, Riviera and Vegas. We should be arriving in Vegas day after tomorrow in the afternoon. Captain Radigan wants to meet you tomorrow after breakfast. Now, go get some sleep, okay?”
Mach and Flash flopped down on the available pad, removing their jackets before doing so. “Will do,” Mach said, and soon the two joined the rest in sleep.
The group woke early in the morning, thanks to two active foals. After breakfast, the families went to the airport, to meet with both Captain Radigan and the airport manager, an older pegasus mare named Radiotelephone. The meeting with the Captain was mainly because he did want to meet Mach and Flash more than any real need to see them. The meeting with Radiotelephone was more businesslike, the mare wanting details about how the rescue was made before allowing a contract to be drawn up to contact the ARRRS if necessary.
“Time zones may work against us, Captain Machspeed, but I personally like to have the option of having you as a contact, in case we can’t get anyone else to help out. That, and getting an overseas line may take a while,” she told the ARRRS ponies.
“We have little trouble in Australia, getting calls from Europe and Asia.” Machspeed said.
“Yeah, but things are a little more broken up here. We got Nueva Angeles to the west, Sonoran Territories here, Colorado Territories farther north, and a bunch of others up north of Angeles. You can call Tucson from here without too much trouble, Vegas and Angeles and other points you have to go through an operator for a circuit. Sometimes it can be exasperating.”
“During stormy weather, calling from Vegas to here can be problematical. Telegraphy is more reliable,” Hal reported.
“I was the one who got the request for weather data that day, pie-face.” Radiotelephone said. “It was pretty nasty down here. Almost lost some prime lettuce fields to flooding, but we saved the crop.”
Hal winced. “Did every pony down here see that newsreel?” he groaned.
“Oh, yes. They have it still at the Movie Barn, and they replay it on occasion, for the comedy value.”
“Where’s my lighter? I got me a film to burn!” Hal snorted, more in embarrassment than anything else.
“Too late, pie-face. I have a copy, too.” Captain Radigan drawled.
As Hal started to go red in the face, Kalie raced up to her father and gave him a snuggle, flying up to his back to give a four-legged hug. Hal immediately calmed down. “Hello, I must be going. I cannot stay I came to say I must be going, I’m glad I came but just the same I must be going,” he said in a Groucho Marx voice, swiftly hoofbumping their hosts before trotting out of the office.
“That’s our cue to leave,” Flashpoint said. “We have the contact information, and if you think we can help, call. If we can respond, we will.”
“Sounds good to me, Flashpoint. Have a safe trip to Vegas. Later, Pie-face!” Radiotelephone shouted out the window as Hal left, followed by the rest.
“Someday, I’m going to get even with you, Raven…” Hal muttered as they walked from the airport to the train station.
“Dreaming again, Hal?” Raven laughed as she scooped up Onyx in her lavender glow and set the foal on her back.
“Are they always like this, Wordy?” Mach asked.
“Nope. Only when they are awake at the same time, and together. Been like that for as long as I have known them.” Wordsmythe replied quietly.
At the train station, the northbound train had not even arrived from San Luis yet, so, they were forced to wait until it chugged in, well over an hour behind schedule. Heading northbound was slower than expected, putting them in Havasu when night fell. Not wanting to sleep on the train, they got off in Havasu to find a hotel. After dinner, Hal sought out Station Hotel’s weather squad while the rest crashed out in the hotel.
Mach had been asleep about an hour when he felt a ping. Waking up, he looked around, wondering where the noise came from. He felt another ping, and remembered that Amelia had a crystal comm. He dug out his crystal and tapped it once before going to the phone. “Hello, operator, I would like to place an overseas call to Brisbane, Australia.”
“Number, please,” came a dull voice.
“I’ll see what I can do, sir. Please hold.”
“Holding.” For five minutes, Mach waited as he heard the operator struggle to put a call to Nueva Angeles before he got a connection.
“Overseas operator. Country of destination, please,” came a different voice.
“Queensland, Australia,” Mach said, his temper starting to fray a little.
“Toowoomba seven-zero-zero-zero, the headquarters of the Aeronautical Returnee Rescue Squad.”
“I’m holdping.” Mach said as another ping came from Amelia.
After another few minutes waiting, and the operator came back on line. “I’m sorry, sir, all circuits are busy at this time. Please try your call later,” she said before disconnecting.
Mach’s horn glowed for a moment as he stamped his hoof and hung up the phone with a little more force than necessary. “Flash, head back home and find out what’s going on, please.” he said as another ping came through.
“On my way, Mach,” she said before vanishing. Mach paced a bit while he waited, Starstruck watching him.
“Something wrong, Father?” she asked.
“Maybe something at home. Trying to place a phone call from here to home can be a pain in the tail end.”
“If you have to leave, I’m sure Raven will watch over me.”
“I’m sure she will, too. Mother can track either you or Major Sleet to return.”
“Happy to help, Father.” Starstruck said.
Flashpoint popped back in. “Mach, we got a triple-seven that had taken off from Wellington about twenty minutes before the Event. Amelia needs me, and wants to know if you want to get in on the fun.”
“Well, that’s nice of her. Tell her yes, get the initial team established on it, then ping me before you come and get me. I’ll let Hal know. We can catch up with them later.”
“Will, do, Mach,” Flash said before blinking out.
Starstruck went to hug her father. “I’ll be okay. Let’s go let them know. You have a job to do.”
Mach snugged his daughter close. “Thank you for being so smart about it.”
“So, I have good examples to learn from. Let’s let the others know.”
Mach filled in Hal and his family what was going on. “Flash will lock in on you and keep you informed. If this takes a while, just keep on training to Vegas and we’ll lock in on you on the way.”
“Sounds good to me, Mach,” Hal told his friend. “We’ll keep on chugging, and you can catch up later. Go do your job, and we’ll head on back to ours.”
“Thanks for being so understandping, Hal,” Mach said as a ping came in from Amelia.
“Understandping?” Wordy asked.
“Just got a signal. Flash is on her way.”
“Look forward to the story, Mach,” Wordy said as Flash flashed in.
“Let’s get going, Mach. We got our hooves full with this one.”
“Let’s go.” With a flash of magic, they did.
In the morning, when Mach and Flash had not returned, Hal and his family got tickets for the next northbound train, making sure to explain to the train ponies about how ARRRS worked, and they would be teleporting in sometime during the trip. The train ponies accepted the explanation, but insisted tickets be purchased for them. The day started damp and oppressive, with low heavy clouds and high temperatures. “Look like the monsoon’s getting an early start,” Raven said as they boarded the train.
“Not the monsoon, Raven. Winds are coming more out of the west. Monsoon would be coming from the southeast,” Hal said, looking at the clouds. “I don’t like the looks of it.”
Raven sighed as she herded the foals into the train. “You know weather better than I do, Hal.”
“Hey, who was the only kid on the street to watch Aviation Weather every Friday without fail for two years?”
“The same idiot who puts the Weather Channel on in the hotel rooms,” Wordy snapped, feeling a little grouchy that morning.
“Easy, Wordy,” Raven said as they found their seats.
The rain started less than an hour after the train pulled out of Havasu, heavy rains that slashed visibility to not very much, with winds that rocked the train on occasion. “This really does not feel good.” Hal muttered. “At this rate, we’ll be lucky to get to Riviera.”
“Trust you to be optimistic, Hal,” Raven muttered as she tried to soothe Black Onyx, who was nervous about the weather. Kalie, on the other hoof, was thrilled, eagerly watching out the window at the lightning, rain and wind.
As Hal was about to snap out a retort, Mach and Flash appeared in the aisle, looking indecently not grumpy. “About time you got back.” Raven told them.
“A triple-seven had taken off from Wellington about twenty minutes before the Flash, one hundred fifty-two passengers and crew. Full fuel tanks, and a lot of panic. Took four hours flying before everyone aboard had settled enough to get the plane down,” Mach said, finding a seat. “After that, five hours getting everyone sorted and settled in Auckland, then handling paperwork. After that, some sleep before coming back.”
“You returned at a great time.” Hal said, looking out the window. “I don’t know where this blew in from, but if we’re doing twenty miles an hour, I’ll be surprised.”
“There was a front passing through New Zealand while we were up,” Flashpoint reported as she flopped down. “Bumpy ride all flight. Didn’t help matters any.”
“You might as well catch some sleep while you can. If you can,” Hal said drily as a lash of lightning lit up the train car, and the crack of thunder shook it, Kalie laughing gleefully, Onyx trying to hide.
The train chugged its way into the Riviera station, where it came to a stop, a good hour and a half late according to the schedule. The rain was easing, but it was still miserable. After sitting for an hour, the conductor came into the car. “All passengers will disembark here. There has been a washout of the tracks between here and Las Vegas, and repairs are estimated to take two to three days,” he said in a loud voice before moving on.
“Two to three DAYS?” Wordy groaned.
“At least. Depends on where the problem is,” Hal said mournfully.
“Come on. Let’s get off here and find a hotel,” Mach said.
“I just hope they not all booked up. I’d hate to have to beg a shelter from Station Romeo. I know I can get one, but I would prefer a bed to a cot.”
“The way our luck has been running this trip, I’m expecting it,” Raven said as she herded the foals off as Wordy and Hal grabbed the luggage.
It turned out that they DID have to beg shelter from NAS Station Romeo, but fortunately for all, it was the bunkroom. Hal, Mach and Flash got into a chat with the commander of Station Romeo, Major Blowing Dust, who sent a runner to fetch the manager of the airport, a returnee earth pony named Rotary Wing (she was a helicopter pilot before the Event). The group hit it off with each other immediately, a rapport quickly developing between the ponies. Wordy and Raven joined the group discussion during and after dinner, which Blowing Dust sent out for. Only once did Rotary Wing call Hal pie-face. Blowing Dust didn’t, because the two had met several times before in the course of working for the NAS.
At about seven, after dinner, the storm line having blown through and cooling off the heat of the desert day, the phone in the station rang. The Duty Officer, Captain Lariat, got the phone. After a few seconds, she called out from the control area, “It’s for you, Spinner!”
“Wonder who wants me.” Rotary Wing said as she got up.
“Spinner?” Mach asked quietly.
“She flew whirlybirds. Easier to say than Rotary Wing,” Blowing Dust answered.
“You have a point.”
Seconds later, Rotary Wing called out, “Captain Machspeed, can you come over here, please?”
Mach and Flash looked at each other. “Maybe we should have stayed home,” Flash said as she got up.
“Hey, we’re making money on this trip, right?”
“Mach, Station Kilo’s radar has picked up a small plane that has appeared in the air between Flagstaff and Kingman, heading north-northwest. Think you can try a rescue?” Rotary Wing asked.
“I’m going to need some more information first. Do you have it on radar yet?” Mach asked in return.
“No. Our radar system is blocked going to the east and north east by mountains. We look mainly south and east. We won’t pick it up on radar until it clears the mountains, and it may be too far north for us to catch it.”
Mach sighed deeply. “Are there any spotters that can get a position on it?”
“Yes. We do have weather spotters scattered across the area,” Rotary wing said, then turned back to the phone she was holding. “Mackey, call the switchboard. Alert all spotters to do a BOLO for the plane. We need a posit!” After listening to the response, she hung up the phone.
“Okay, the on-duty controller has got matters well in hoof. Let’s get to the airport tower.” Rotary Wing said to the assembled.
“Hold on a moment, Spinner. I got a squad out in that direction chasing the storm line. Let me see if they can spot anything.” Blowing Dust said as he flew across the hangar to the control room.
Hal spoke up. “Spinner, Mach, Flash, head for the tower. I’ll wait here, get any posit data, and fly over to you with it.”
“Sounds like a plan to me,” Spinner said as she started walking to the exit, Mach and Flash following. Once outside, she broke into a run. Mach and Flash found it hard to keep up with the green and brown earth pony as they raced to the tower, which was almost a mile away, at the far north end of the airport. There, they met with the duty controller, a black and brown male unicorn who was introduced as Mackey Messer.
“Nothing new yet to report, Mom. I told the switchboard to call out to the outliers. Nothing on radio or radar.”
“Good going, son. I’m proud of you. Keep listening, and grab the phone if it rings. I’ll take over for now.”
“Right, Mom. Who are your friends?” Introductions were made, and all went to different positions in the tower, which did give a spectacular view of the river.
“All we can do now is wait.” Mach said.
Five minutes later, the phone rang. Mackey quickly answered it. “Got a posit? Peach Springs?” A pause, then he nodded. “Okay. Get confirmation,” he said before hanging up and looking at the others. “A sweep flier noticed it about five miles north of Peach Springs, speed two hundred, course three-one-zero, apparently heading for Las Vegas.”
“Did they get a read on what kind of plane it is?” Flash asked.
“Report is a low-wing turboprop. The sweep flier did not know what kind of airplane it is, but she did get the registration number. Major Sleet is on his way here. Blowing Dust said he was excited.”
“I see him.” Spinner said, looking to the south. “He’s moving fast. Hope Dust told him about the roof hatch.”
“What roof hatch?” Flash asked, looking up and not seeing one.
“The one with the handle on the outside.” Spinner said as Hal was seen backwinging in for a landing on the roof, his mane blowing. There was a quadruple thump on the roof, and a fumbling at the hatch before Hal pulled it open.
“Mach! I know that plane! It’s a 2009 Piper Malibu I overhauled and updated the avionics on about two years before the Event!” Hal shouted down.
“Great! Got a fix on it?”
“Bearing approximately zero-six-zero, range about sixty-five miles. Flash, is that enough for you?”
Flashpoint concentrated in the approximate direction for a few seconds before grinning. “Got it!”
“Rotary Wing, what’s the comm frequency?” Mach asked.
“177.2, and the emergency frequency. We monitor both.”
“Right. Let’s go!” Flash triggered her teleport, and the two unicorns left the tower, to reappear on the small plane.
Aboard, they found two ponies in the front seats, a unicorn in the left seat, and what appeared to be a foal in the right seat, either an earth pony or a pegasus. The unicorn looked around when the pair arrived. “Who are you?” the unicorn asked.
“Hello! We’re the Welcome Wagon!” Flashpoint said.
“Excuse me, but if you keep going the way you are, you’re going to miss your target. You’re already a bit late, like thirty-two hundred plus years.” Mach said in a calm voice laced with humor. ‘Please to pardon us, but we’re going to move you and your passenger to the back and I’ll fly. I’m Captain Machspeed of the Aeronautical Returnee Rescue Response Squad. What’s your name?” he asked as Flash’s horn lit up, first undoing the seat belts, then lifting the passenger up and back.
“Art. Arthur Lyles, and that is my granddaughter Rebecca Lyles. How are you moving her?”
“Magic has arrived, which moved you to this time and changed you into a pony. You’ll learn more later. Now, just relax, Mister Lyles, and I’ll move you to the back. Don’t worry, I’m a retired RAAF and commercial pilot, who Returned just like you did. Flashpoint, my wife, was born here in this time frame.” Mach said smoothly as his own horn lit up, the glow surrounding Arthur and lifting him gently, putting him in the back of the plane before moving forward to take over the pilot’s seat. He dialed the radio to 177.6 and called Riviera.
“Riviera Tower, this is Machspeed. How you read?”
“Read you three by, Captain. We don’t have the best receivers,” he heard Rotary Wing say.
“Can you give me a vector to Riviera? Sun’s going down and I don’t know the area.”
“Mach, this is Hal. I’m on the phone now, trying to get a connection to Vegas. Suggest you stay on course and head that way. Nellis is monitoring the emergency frequency, and they have better radios there. If I get through, I’ll have them call you. Good thing the storms passed.”
“Sounds good to me, Hal. Will make it easier to get there.”
“What I was thinking. Beats waiting for them to fix the tracks. Keep your horns crossed I get through.”
“That’s going to be hard to do. Not much room for both of us up front. Machspeed ten-ten.”
“Riviera Tower ten-ten.” Rotary Wing replied. Mach tuned the second radio to the emergency frequency.
“While we have some time, where did you take off from?” Mach asked.
“We took off from Stellar Airpark in Chandler yesterday morning. We flew to Flagstaff, where I landed to do a little sightseeing with Rebecca. A small fault developed in the fuel system, and it took a while to get fixed. We were heading to Vegas where my son and his wife are vacationing.” Arthur explained.
“What sort of fault?” Mach asked.
“Fuel pump developed a fault. Landing at Flagstaff was a bit of a challenge. It was easier to head there than to land at Sedona. Took a while to find a part.”
“How old is your granddaughter?”
“She’s six. Sound asleep, too. She could sleep through a thunderstorm. Seeing as I have a head spike like you do, could I learn to do what you can?”
“I don’t see any reason why not. I know Las Vegas has a good Returnee retraining center. I’m friends with some ponies who went through it a few years ago. He says he knows this plane.”
“How could he know this plane?” Arthur asked, puzzled.
“He told me he overhauled the avionics a couple years ago.”
“I did have them updated when I bought the plane a couple of years ago, up in Scottsdale.”
“Well, your technician remembered the number on the aircraft. That enabled us to see if we could get in for a rescue. If it was a smaller plane, I might not have been able to teleport in with Mach. He’s the pilot, I’m just the teleporter,” Flash explained.
“Teleporter, eh? That explains how you got up here. Handy talent to have,” Arthur said. “Too bad I never thought of personal teleportation, just mechanical.”
“What do you mean, Mr. Lyles?”
“I am a screenwriter and novelist, or, I should say, I was. Mostly science fiction. Was what I liked.”
“I like what I do, too.” Mach said from his seat at the controls. “Makes work fun, right?”
As Arthur was about to answer, the radio came to life. “Nellis Operations to Five Tango Alpha. Do you copy?”
“Nellis Operations, this is Five Tango Alpha, Captain Machspeed piloting. Read you loud and clear.”
“Good. Major Sleet managed to send us a wire saying you were coming and where to look. Phones into and out of the city are out, but the telegraph wires are more securely set. Any returnees?”
“Two. A unicorn grandfather and his granddaughter, age six, species indeterminate. Both in good health, the grandfather is reasonably stable. The granddaughter is sound asleep.”
“That’s good to hear, Captain. You should be here within half an hour. If the sun was up, you would see the Grand Canyon off to your right. We’re going to turn on a couple of searchlights when you get close enough. Estimate your arrival within half an hour.”
“Sounds good to me, Nellis. Time to get everyone ready.”
“We’ll be waiting, Five Tango Alpha.”
The rest of the flight in was uneventful, with only a little clear air turbulence. Rebecca woke up just before landing, and it was discovered she was a little pink and yellow pegasus. After landing, the two Returnees were turned over to the authorities, the paperwork filed, and Mach and Flash got to meet the duty weather section, led by Captain Harper Tune. Mach waited there while Flash went back to Riviera to fetch Hal and the rest. Harper Tune called the duty section of the Dust Devils and spread the news of Hal’s return to Vegas. After a warm, but surprised, welcome, because Hal was not due back until at least September, Raven and Flash figured out a way to get to the villa without walking.
Raven would put on Hal’s jacket and teleport to the villa, which was just within her range. Flashpoint would follow, using the jacket as a mana beacon, leaving a beacon of her own before teleporting the two of them back, because the party was only getting started. That chore took more than a few minutes, because Raven needed to check everything over, turn on the power, water and phone, check the cooler system out, dust and make sure the rooms were squared away before declaring the house fit to live in again.
It was a happily weary herd of ponies that arrived at the house after midnight, glad to have finally arrived at their destination after a prolonged case of what Hal called Transitus Interruptus. It was a good thing that the herd ate at the party, because there was no fresh food in the house at all, just dried, preserved stuff. Wordy said he would get up early and shop the markets to restock.
Sipping water, which was all they had to drink in the villa, they turned on the big radio to listen to the one a.m. newscast. The lead story was about the Returnee plane landing at Nellis, and how LVR News was trying to get in touch with this Captain Machspeed who landed the plane.
“Looks like you are going to face an interview in the morning, Mach. Don’t worry about it being rough, though, because I’ll be getting the grilling.” Hal said before turning the radio to his station, LVR’s Retro Radio Two.
“I just hope they will believe me that I have no plans to open a branch office here. The way your communications are snarled up, by the time I find out about it, it would be too late to get here,” Mach sighed.
“If Raven can figure out how to teleport like Flash does, you might have some competition. But, don’t hold your breath.”
“I heard that!” Raven shouted from the kids’ room. “You want to sleep in the doghouse tonight?”
“We don’t have a doghouse, Raven! We don’t even have a dog!”
Raven came out of the kids’ room, brandishing what looked like to be a cast iron skillet in her violet glow. “Keep pushing, Hal, keep pushing! You’re going to get a wallop that will land you in Phoenix… taking the LONG way round!”
“Yes, Raven. Welcome home, Raven.” Hal said meekly, cowed by the skillet.
“Does this happen all the time?” Flash murmured to Wordy.
“Heck, no,” Wordy murmured back, flinching a little from the sight of the skillet, having felt it before. “Only on days ending in ‘y’.”
Flash hummed some, looking at Mach speculatively. “Raven, don’t give Flash any ideas!” Mach exclaimed.
“Who says I need any more?” Flash said with an evil grin. “I got enough of my own!”
Return of the USS California by Alden MacManx
23 May 2015, 2010 hours, off the coast of Sydney, Australia, the USS California (SSN 781) cruised on the surface, having arrived early for a port visit the next day. The Captain of the California, Commander Scott Haugen, was up on the bridge, along with the Officer of the Deck, Lieutenant Edward Smith, and two lookouts, just enjoying the clear, cool night air along with all the stars. The lights of Sydney were just a blur on the western horizon, allowing all the stars of the southern sky to shine in all their glory.
“Fourteen more hours, then we can pull in for five days of festivities.” LT. Smith said, as he looked around, backing up the lookouts. It would look bad on his record if his ship rammed another.
“It’s been a hard run from Pearl Harbor, but the ship and crew performed spectacularly. We’ve earned some time in a good liberty port. Australia is one of the best.” Captain Haugen replied as he gazed out at the open ocean, which were calm, no real swells, seeing the wake the ship left as it cleaved through the calm waters. “Our reward for taking the Battle ‘E’ at Squadron,” he added, referring to the ribbon for Battle Excellence.
“Not to mention passing the ORSE with flying colors.” LT Smith said, referring to the Operational Reactors Safeguards Examination, a yearly test of skills and knowledge for the Engineering Department, of which he was the Engineer.
“The fruits of our labors are five days in Sydney before heading south for an Antarctic run.”
“Something I am not looking forward to, sir. I detest the cold,” LT Smith said, being a lifelong Arizonan desert rat before joining the Navy, and had been fortunate to never having really seen snow in his life, except for a day trip up Mauna Kea. He really didn’t like cold.
“Nor am I, Mr. Smith. But, it’s what orders say. You have the conn. I’m heading below. Maybe catch a movie before bed.”
“Have a good night, Captain.”
“I’ll try my best.” Captain Haugen said before he made his way to the hatch and the ladder down to the control room.
Right then, it was 2014 hours. A bright flash passed over everything, and suddenly, the California was no longer cruising under a night-time sky. The sun was peeking up over and under a cloud on the eastern horizon. More than that, Captain Haugen, Lieutenant Smith, and the two lookouts had changed into little horses. Colorful little horses, from what could be seen of their fur.
Everyone looked at everyone else in alarm. “What the fucking hell happened to us?” one of the lookouts, QMSN Tomlinson, asked. “Pardon my language, Captain.” Tomlinson was now a zebra, black and white stripes patterning his fur.
“Pardoned, Tomlinson.” Captain Haugen replied, finding himself a deep blue horse with an orange horn coming from his brow. “I’d like to know that myself.”
LT Smith, now a brown and gray mottled pony, took a deep breath. “Whatever it was, it happened to all of us at once. What about the rest of the crew?”
“I don’t care about the rest of the crew, what about the rest of the world?” the other lookout, SKSA Bennett, cried out, having been transformed into a blue-green horse. “I gotta get home!” he said, trying to get his body up over the bridge coaming.
“Bennett! Get a grip on yourself! Calm down and let’s figure out what’s going on!” Captain Haugen snapped.
“I got a girl back in Pearl! I got to check in on her!” Bennett said hysterically as he tried to control his new body enough to get overboard. “I’ll swim for it if I have to!”
Haugen swung a hoof, catching Bennett in the side of the head. “Easy, sailor! Calm down!” he said forcefully.
Bennett flinched from the blow, but quickly calmed down. “Thank you, Captain. I’m sorry,” he apologized, the others noticing Bennett’s voice was a bit different than before.
“Accepted, Bennett. Somehow, this was not covered in Navy Regs.” Captain Haugen said. “Now, how are we going to get down the ladder?”
“Good question, Captain.” LT Smith said as sounds of startled yelling could be heard coming up out of the hatch. “Doesn’t sound good down there.”
“No, it doesn’t. Help me with the MC circuit.” Captain Haugen said as he fumbled for the microphone. With some help from LT Smith, he soon held the microphone in his hooves.
“Attention all hands, this is the Captain speaking. Anyone on board with anything resembling working hands lay to ops upper level and the hatch to the sail. Control, come to ahead one-third. Radio, raise the ESM and Comm masts and try to get some signals. Deploy the floating wire for ELF and VLF transmissions. All hands, keep calm. All of us have been changed, and it is up to us to get a handle on the situation. We are United States Navy sailors, tops in Squadron One, not a bunch of drunken fishermen! Remember that and behave accordingly. That is all.”
“Good thing everyone aboard has full confidence in you, Captain.” QMSN Tomlinson said.
“We’ll get through this, Tomlinson. First thing is to get down off the bridge.’
“Maybe I can be of help, Captain,” came a gravelly voice from the bottom of the ladder.
“Is that you, Elricki?” Haugen called down.
“It’s me, Captain. I’m some sort of dog, not a horse. I got hands, so I can carry you all down from there. Permission to enter the bridge?” the Chief of the Boat (also known as COB) called up the hatchway.
“Permission granted, Master Chief. Help the lookouts down first, then Mr. Smith, then me.”
Climbing the ladder was a burly canine form, wearing the remnants of a set of khakis that were in tatters, with a Master chief’s anchor and stars on the collar tabs. “Okay, sir, I think I can get all of you down from here. One at a time, please.”
“You’re taking this rather calmly, Master Chief,” the Captain said as the canine braced himself in the hatch.
“I’ll panic later. Right now, I have to save my furry ass, and everyone else’s. Main problem now is figuring out who is who.” Elricki growled. “Voices have not changed much, but looks sure have.”
“Bennett, you’re first. Let the Master Chief get you down.” Haugen ordered.
“Yes, sir!” the blue-green horse said, stumbling around until the sea dog could get a grip on him before heading down. Tomlinson went next, then Lieutenant Smith. The Captain went last.
On the deck of Operations compartment upper level, the three ponies and a zebra quickly figured out how to at least walk, leaning on each other. The stairway proved to be a bit of a problem, but not as bad as a ladder would be. LT Smith headed aft, while the Captain and Master Chief went to Control, where the Captain asked for a situation report, which was slow in coming. He expected that, due to the crew figuring out how to use their hooves.
Of a crew of one hundred thirty-three, seven had any form of hands. Three canine-like types like Master Chief Elricki, and four bird-cat hybrids with front manipulative claws. Of the rest of the crew, there were five zebras, ten horses with wings, thirty horses with narwhal-like horns, and the rest normal-looking horses, just small and brightly colored.
An alarm sounded as a report was quickly passed. “Flooding in the Engine Room! Securing Starboard Side Main Sea Water!”
Captain Haugen fumbled for a microphone. The Master Chief grabbed the MC mic and held it for his captain. “Maneuvering, this is the Captain. What’s happening back there?”
After a few seconds, a report came back. “Captain, Maneuvering. The Engine Room Lower Level watch stander became one of the horned horses. He had some sort of panic attack, and a light came from his horn and punched a hole in the seawater piping starboard side. We have it isolated, and are trying to ascertain status of equipment down there. Reactor is operational, and we can still maneuver with port side steam. It’s bad, but not too bad. I’ll have a better damage report as soon as possible, Captain.”
“You do that. Right now, I’m trying to ascertain our position and make contact with Command. Keep me posted. Captain out.” He then nodded at the Master Chief, who hung up the microphone. “Okay, crew, let’s find out where we are and who is out there.”
The Control room crew got to work, more clumsy than usual, due to their lack of hands and height, in many cases. “Control, Navigation. According to SINS, we are right where we were,” came a report from the Nav room.
“Navigation, Control, aye.”
“Control, Radio. Negative traffic on all military wavelengths, ELF and VLF are silent. EHS and VHS are also silent. We cannot get a lock on any satellites. It’s like the sats are not there to be found.”
“Radio, Control. What about commercial bands?”
“Control, Radio. Trying them now, sir. Stand by.”
“Radio, Control. Standing by.” Haugen looked at the quartermaster’s station, where a pink and yellow winged horse stood, in a baggy first class petty officer’s uniform. “Quartermaster, give me a course to Sydney Harbor.”
“Stand by, Captain. I have to get up on my back hooves,” the quartermaster said, doing that. He tried to reach for his tools, but could not quite reach them. Shrugging, he reported, “Going by eyeball, I would steer two-eight-four. We’ll have to adjust that later.”
“Very well, quartermaster. Diving officer, rudder ten degrees to port, new course two-eight-four, ahead one-third.”
“Rudder port ten, new course two-eight-four, aye.” The diving officer, now a black and red horse, repeated back before passing it on to his helmsman.
“Control, Radio. I’m picking up a commercial transmission from Sydney, AM band. Three others as well, but that’s all. No FM, no digital TV, just four AM stations.”
“Very well, Radio. Monitor the transmission and give me a report in half an hour on the state of affairs.”
“Aye aye, Captain.”
Master Chief Elricki looked at his commanding officer. “Captain, why don’t I check around the boat, seeing how conditions are?”
“Do that, Master Chief. Gather all that have hands and bring them to Control. We’re going to have to depend on them for a while yet.”
“Aye aye, Captain!” The Master Chief headed forward to accomplish his task.
Back in the engine room, the Engineering Watch Supervisor, MMC Clarendon, surveyed the damage to the piping. How he managed the ladder, he could not explain, he just did. Seawater filled the bilges, but did not spill over into anything. One pump was soaked, but it was not in operation. He did the surveying over the shoulder of the watch stander, MM2 Burnside, who was clinging to Clarendon, trying not to break down. “I don’t know how or why… I just was in the middle of panicking when this flare came from my head and blew a hole in the pipe and I could not stop it…” the new horse sobbed uncontrollably.
“Easy, Burnie… everyone changed. Just get a grip on yourself, take a deep breath or two, and know you are not alone, okay? We’re all Californians here, and we never abandon each other, do we?”
Burnside took a deep breath and visibly fought to control himself. “No, Chief. We’re all Californians. Californians always stick together. We count on each other. The Eng is going to be pissed.”
“The Eng has his own problems, I’m sure. You have yours. I have mine. What am I going to do with these wings? I can’t fly with them! But, we can stick together. Now, start pumping out the bilges into the Waste Oil tank. By then, we should be able to pump Waste Oil out and try again.”
“It’s going to be a bitch turning the valves, but, I’ll think of a way.” Burnside let go of Clarendon and shook himself. “Thank you, Chief. Let’s get to work. I did this, I’ll clean it up.”
Clarendon smiled at the words. “That’s showing Calie spirit!”
“We’re all bearish for the Calie!” Burnside said as he looked at the valve he would have to open to pump the seawater bay bilge out. Sitting on the deck, he took the handwheel in both forehooves and twisted, getting it open before turning on the pump, which took him taking the clipboard in his mouth and flicking the switch with a corner.
Chief Clarendon looked at the ladder leading up. It was a good twelve to fifteen feet straight up. He tried to climb the ladder, but could not get a good grip with his hooves. He snorted, flapping his new wings in irritation. He found himself zooming up and through the square meter hatch, clipping the edge with a rear hoof and managing to fall in the only safe way possible, along the walkway. The horses in Maneuvering stared at the sprawled chief. “Guess these wings do work…” he muttered.
“How did you do that, Chief?” asked the throttleman, EM2 Raines.
“Pure fucking magic, for all I know.”
In Control, Captain Haugen was getting a better understanding of the ship’s situation. Damage aft, under control. Ship’s crew, coming back from panic. Communications, no one answered the calls out, but can still get the Sydney stations.
“Conn, ESM. Picking up a contact bearing two-nine-zero. Looks like a ship coming out of Sydney Harbor.”
“ESM, Conn, aye.” Captain Haugen said, before using his nose to rotate the photonic mast to the desired direction. Zooming in did show what appeared to be a ship, but the distance was still a bit extreme. “Sonar, Conn. Are you picking up anything bearing two-nine-zero?”
There was a pause before a reply came. “Conn, Sonar. We could be, but right now, we’re not sure. We’re having difficulty working the controls with hooves. We’re also picking up a lot of unusual biologics. I've never heard the likes before on many of them,” reported the Sonar Supervisor, STS1 McCandless.
“Sonar, Conn, aye.”
After an hour or so, at 2200 ship’s time, Captain Haugen could finally piece together the condition of his crew. Three doglike beings, four griffins, several zebras and the rest horses of one of three types, winged, horned, and none of the above. Another discovery was that one-third of the crew had changed gender, from male to female. Of the forty-four that had been gender bent, six were catatonic and four had suicided. Of the rest, three others had also suicided, including the Executive Officer.
The ship was determined to be a freighter, which turned once clear of the harbor, heading north. A random sweep of frequencies found radio in use by several agencies, that being fire, police, air traffic control, harbor control and ship to ship. Captain Haugen went to Radio, where he had the ship’s transmitter tuned to the harbor control frequency.
“This is the USS California calling Sydney Harbor Control. Do you copy?”
There was a short pause before a reply came. “Ey! What’s this USS stuff? What you be doing on this frequency?”
“This is Commander Haugen, Captain of the United States Submarine California. We were off shore, due to pull in to port on May the 24th, two thousand fifteen, when at twenty-fourteen hours, something happened.”
The voice at the other end let out a laugh. “Oh, I see. You’re Returnees. Yes, it is a bit of a shock, I’m told. I was born here, but I know a bunch of Returnees. Here’s some advice for you, Captain. Head for Sydney Harbor best possible speed. I am going to call on some ponies I know to give you a hoof.”
“I take it this has happened before, yes?”
“Oh, yes, Captain. Oh, I’m Green Wave, the duty harbor controller. Do you have a location fix?”
“We’re about sixteen miles east by southeast of Sydney Harbor. We’re making our way there, but slowly. We’ve had some problems aboard.”
“Oh, I can understand that, Captain. I was on duty last year when a fishing trawler Returned about a hundred kilometers south of here. By the time help arrived, only six ponies were left alive. The rest killed themselves in one form or another.” Green Wave informed the sub. “Stand by this frequency, Captain Haugen. I’m going to get some help to you. Some ponies that can help navigate your ship into harbor.”
“How can any horse operate a submarine?”
“We have ways, Captain. Sydney Harbour Control out.”
Green Wave picked up a telephone and dialed a number he knew, Toowoomba seven-zero-zero-zero. When someone answered the other end, he said, “Get me Mach, please. I have something for him!”
A short time later, “Machspeed? Green Wave at Sydney Harbour Control. Have I got an interesting one for you!”
“What? Did a seaplane appear over the Harbour?”
“No, something called a submarine appeared about fifteen miles or so off Sydney Harbour. The United States Submarine California. They can use some help getting to safety. Yes, you’re airborne, but you can get there faster than anypony else I know.”
“A submarine?” Mach said, surprised. Then a smile crossed his face. “I have no idea about how to fly a submarine, but I know a pony who can. How much time do we have before they come near port?”
“Best guess is within two hours. Will that be enough?”
“It should. I’ll call you back when I have matters set to go up here.”
“Sounds good to me, Mach. We’ll be waiting. Later!” Green Wave said cheerily before hanging up.
After Mach hung up, he touched the button for the complex’s loudspeaker. “Flash, get to my office. We have a job to do!”
In Las Vegas, Hal Sleet opened his mic as the last notes of The Kinks ‘Tired of Waiting for You’ faded. “It’s ten minutes to six on a Friday night, Hal Sleet here on Las Vegas Retro Radio Two, and I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of waiting for the weekend. Wait no more, because the weekend is here! Okay, give it another nine minutes and thirty seconds, and it will be! I’ve got a busy weekend planned for me and mine, namely watching Kalie and Onyx while Mama Raven attends a conference at the Bummer all weekend long. Boney, the coffee, please!”
“Roight, Mister Sleet. Got it roight here, I do. Fresh and hot and adulterated just the way you loike it for a Friday.” Malone Fonebone, his faithful, loyal and (apparently) not-too-bright diamond dog producer.
“You have better got it right this time, Boney. Last week, I outran the Green Line train between here and Vegas Central Station when I got off.” Hal said as he picked up the mug.
“Fly next time, Mister Sleet. It took Raven an hour to get the fence wire out of your chest and legs.” Malone said, just at the wrong time. Hal geysered the coffee, coughing, hacking and wheezing, the mug falling to the floor with an audible thump. This went on for about ten seconds before Hal got his breath back.
“Boney, are you looking to be kicked up and down Frenchman Mountain again?” Hal managed to gasp.
“Not this Friday, Mister Sleet. I brought protection.” Malone said, followed by the sound of a claw tapping a cast-iron skillet.
“No wonder you’ve been sitting funny all day, Boney. Go on, get out of here before I shove wing feathers up your nose!”
“Roight, Mister Sleet.” Boney said before leaving, the sound of a cast-iron skillet clanging to the floor and a door slamming on his way out.
Hal snorted. “Hmm- finally, after seven years, I found a way to motivate him. Okay, pones, until Monday at noon, this is Hal Sleet saying enjoy your weekend!” he said cheerfully before starting his typical Friday night signoff song, ‘See You Later, Alligator’ by Bill Haley and the Comets.
“Hal, you have a visitor waiting in the office. Says it’s urgent,” the oncoming deejay, Pete Mahedrin, said once the mic was turned off.
Hal’s wings fluttered a little as he got up. “Wonder who it is.”
Going to the outer office, Hal was quite surprised to see Flashpoint there. “Flash? What are you doing here?” he asked.
“We need you and the Subvets, Hal. The USS California has Returned off Sydney Harbour.”
Hal grimaced. “This can’t be good. How bad off are they?”
“Damaged, but still mobile. They are on the surface, but you know how mana flares can happen, and what damage they can do.”
Hal nodded. “Oh, yeah. Give me ten minutes and I’ll see who I can gather. Have you told Raven yet?”
“No, I told Wordy. Raven wasn’t at home. He told me how to get here. The kids sure have grown in the past year.” Flashpoint said with a bit of a smile.
“Get dive-bombed by Kalie?” At Flash’s nod and grimace, Hal grinned. “She can get away with so much right now…
“But, let me get on the phone. See who I can round up.” Hal went to the phone and dialed a number. “Bruce? Hal. We have a Returning sub alert. Australia. The USS California. Round up all you can in ten minutes and I’ll meet you at the hall, with transport.” Hal then gave a snort. “Don’t call me Captain, I’m a Lieutenant Colonel, Corporal!” he snapped before hanging up.
“Where’s the Subvets hall?” Flashpoint asked.
“On Northwash Boulevard, about two miles from my house. Let’s go to my place, I’ll fly there, call you and you find me. Deal?” Hal asked.
“Sounds good to me, Hal. Ready?”
“I’m ready. Night, Inky. See you Monday, I hope.” Hal said to the black earth pony receptionist as he reached out with a wing for Flash. When they touched, the pair winked out, reappearing at Hal’s villa a little way away from the intersection of North Elevator Road and Lake Hills Street. Hal quickly took wing, arching up over the villa, heading northeasterly.
“Did you find Hal, Flash?” Wordsmythe, Hal’s housemate and good friend, asked as he came out from the kitchen.
“Yes, I did. He’s going to Subvets Hall and call me from there. Then, I’ll find him.”
“Always thought he was smarter than he looks. Kalie, don’t even think of it.” Wordy said without turning around. Kaleidoscope was about to leap into the air to pounce on Flash, but desisted when she heard her Uncle Wordy say no. Uncle Wordy gets real loud when she does something he doesn’t like, and she does not like Uncle Wordy getting loud with her.
“So are you, Wordy.”
Wordy snorted with a little amusement. “No, I know my niece well,” he said before the phone rang.
Flash took the receiver in her glow. “You there, Hal?”
“I’m here. Come on down!”
“Be right there!” Flash said before hoofing the phone back to Wordy. “I owe you a longer visit when this is over. Later, kids!”
Flashpoint appeared in what appeared to be some sort of lounge, a bar running along one wall, tables and chairs scattered about the room. “Welcome to the Submarine Veterans of Las Vegas meeting hall, Flash.” Hal told his friend.
She looked at the seven assorted ponies- three pegasi, two unicorns and two earth ponies. “Ponies, the USS California has appeared off shore of Sydney. Interested in helping her back to port?” she asked.
A black and silver unicorn spoke up. “Hell, yes! Sub vets always help each other, even though it may have been years since we last set hoof on one!”
“Got that right, Demetrios!” Hal said. All the ponies stomped in approval.
Hal turned to Flashpoint. “Sub vets of Las Vegas are ready to head out!”
“Let’s go! Everyone come close to me, please, so I can teleport all of you.” Once all were crowded around to her satisfaction, she lit up her horn and teleported the bunch to ARRRS headquarters in Brisbane.
“We are going to use this area as a staging place before we go to the sub itself. I want to go there personally before taking the lot of you, so I can know exactly WHERE to place every pony without one or more of you going swimming.” Flash announced to the crowd before disappearing again. After she left, Hal organized the ponies into specialties, ready to go help in the two key areas, Engineering and Control.
Flash blinked in at the sub, where she had earlier dropped Machspeed and several others of the ARRRS crew, who were busy helping calm the crew. “I got Hal and six others waiting at the base, Mach. Where do you want them?”
Machspeed was with Captain Haugen in Control. “Three aft in Engineering to help there, and the rest up here in Control. We’ll distribute them up here.”
“Where can I transport them in at?”
Captain Haugen handled that one. “The Wardroom. There should be enough space there. I’ll lead you. Captain Machspeed, you have the conn.”
“I have the controls, okay.” Machspeed said from the conn position.
“Bloody Airedales…” muttered the Captain good-naturedly.
“Bloody doggy-paddlers…” muttered Machspeed in return, which caused a ripple of laughter to spread through Control.
Captain Haugen led Flashpoint to the Wardroom. “Enough space here?”
“Looks like it. I’ll be back in a minute or two.” Flashpoint’s horn lit up and she blinked out returning a moment later with the SUBVETS team and a few of her counseling team.
Hal looked around and spotted the Captain. “Captain, I’m Lieutenant Colonel Hal Sleet, of the Nevada Aeronautical Society, as well as a former first-class ET on the old six twenty-four and the six-fifty-six. We’re submarine veterans, with enough time as ponies to learn how to operate things. None of us have ever been on a Virginia-class before, but my assistant, Mr. Morrow, was a helmsman on the Ohio until last year. Permission to come aboard?”
Captain Haugen looked at the ponies, three with wings, two with horns, and two with neither. “Permission granted. I’m Captain Haugen. We can use all the help we can get bringing the ship into port safely.” He then looked at Bruce. “Hellbender Morrow?”
Bruce grimaced. “Yes, that’s me. You were the Exec of the Ohio my first year there, right?”
Haugen smiled. “That I am. You can take the helm and planes, Morrow. I know my ship is in good hands with you. Just no angles and dangles, okay?”
“Yes sir, Captain!” Bruce said with a smile, saluting smartly. “Lead me to control!”
“Captain, these four here are trained engineers. Need help aft?” Hal asked, indicating the two unicorns and two earth ponies
“Yes, we do. I’ll have someone take them aft and help take care of the flooding in the engine room. And maybe patch the seawater pipe. Will help in stability.”
“Just lead the way, Captain!” one of the unicorns said. “Been over a hundred years since I was at sea, and I was a top mechanic at the dam. If it broke, we can fix it!”
“Let’s do it to it, men! The California needs your help!” Haugen said, smiling in relief.
“That’s ‘ponies’, Captain. But, we agree with you!”
Captain Haugen led the ponies to Control, where Hal, Bruce and one other took up positions. Master Chief Elricki led the four aft to help, and Mach had his team go to the mess decks to help stabilize the crew. Within moments, Control was clear except for Captain Haugen, Machspeed, Colonel Sleet, Morrow, and Hendricksen, a pegasus who took over at the quartermaster’s stand.
“Good thing it’s calm today, otherwise we’d really have trouble handling the ship.” Captain Haugen said from the conn.
“I’m just glad we’re on the surface. It’s been a while since I’ve handled depth control, and this layout is unfamiliar.” Hal said from the Chief of the Watch’s panel, which had the buoyancy controls.
“You did well enough with the blimp last year, Hal.” Machspeed said from his position.
“As I said then, blimps and subs are different. There, we could see where we were going, and we had outside help for navigating. Now, we’re not getting outside help.” Hal replied as he located all the controls, figuring what did what. “She looks heavy astern.”
“We had some flooding aft. Haven’t pumped it out yet.”
“When they’re ready to, go ahead. Do you have the ability to pump bilges with the drain pump?”
“Yes, we do. Think you can get it done?”
“With the help of your crew and mine working together, we can. Have Chief Conyers pick up the JA, please.” Hal asked from his console, extracting the sound-powered phone from its clip.
Captain Haugen made the call over the 1MC, and soon, a voice came over the JA. “Conyers.”
“Connie, Hal. Where are you at?”
“Engine Room Upper Level, geeking out at the gear here. I’m trying to puzzle out the pump-jet.”
“Report to Engine Room Lower Level, get with the watchstander there, and line up the drain pump to pump the bilges. We’re heavy aft.”
“On it, Hal. I’ll call you on the JA when we’re lined up.”
After Hal hung up the phone, Captain Haugen asked, “This Chief Conyers knows the engine spaces, I take it?”
“Yes, she does. She was a watch supervisor aboard the six thirty-four and the six forty-five before she retired back in 1978. When the Event occurred, he was pushing eighty, living a nice retired life in Henderson, Nevada. The Event made him a female unicorn. Her talents got her a job at Hoover Dam, servicing the turbines there. She retired from that a decade ago.” Hal explained.
“Just how old is she, as a unicorn?” Captain Haugen asked.
“She Returned almost a hundred years ago, Captain. We were in the process of planning her century party when Rainbow King called.” Bruce said from his position at the helm.
“Long story, Captain Haugen. Maybe later we’ll get into it.” Hal said, studying his panel with interest, trying to dodge the topic.
“If you make it to Vegas, I’ll take you to Archives so you can see the newsreels, sir.” Bruce said, trying to hold back a snicker.
“You do that, Bruce, and I’ll have you and Harper foal sitting Kalie and Onyx this weekend. Angela would like that.” Hal said sharply.
“Oh, shit. There goes the paint job I just did.” Bruce said in a voice so dry, dust bunnies sprouted and ran off.
“Control, Engine Room. Drain pump is lined up to pump engine room bilges.” Chief Conyers called over the JA.
“Switch control to me, and keep me informed.” Hal said, readying the controls.
“You have control, sir. Pump when ready.”
“Pumping.” Hal activated the drain pump, and it was only a moment or so before Chief Conyers called back to secure pumping.
“If it’s all right with you, sir, I’ll see about patching the hole in the piping here. Just give me a couple of strongbacks from a DC kit and I can have this patched in no time. Just don’t dive much with starboard Main Sea Water going.” Connie said.
“Have at, Chief.”
Captain Haugen looked confused. “How could she patch holes in inch thick steel piping without tools?” he asked.
Machspeed handled that. “We unicorns, once trained, can use our magic for many varied purposes. Apparently, this Chief Conyers knows how to weld metal with her horn alone. During orientation, you will learn how to use your horn for various basic effects, like telekinesis and light. You may have the talent to teleport, like my wife does. You can go as far as your talent can take you, the same as any pony.”
Haugen carefully brushed a hoof against his horn. “This I have to see.”
“You will, in time. Let’s get the ship to port first.”
“Conn, Sonar! Unknown sound source approaching fast from the port side and below!” called the Sonar Supervisor over the intercom.
“Sonar, Conn. Patch display to mine. Let me see.”
“Patching, sir.” McCandless reported. “It looks like it’s the size of a blue whale.”
Simultaneously, Machspeed, Colonel Sleet, Hendricksen and Morrow said aloud, “Oh, shit. We’re in trouble now.”
“Trouble? How?” Captain Haugen asked.
“The sea life here does not get along with surface life. While ships do ply the waves, the chances of pulling into port are definitely less than a hundred per cent. I think the drain pump’s action attracted one of the leviathans.” Hendricksen said from the quartermaster’s chart table.
“What can we do about it?”
“Well, seeing as we don’t have any unicorns with the proper deterrence spells, there’s really only two things we can do. Run for cover or open fire with everything you got. How many Mark 48’s you got aboard, Captain?” Hendricksen asked drily.
“Twenty, plus twelve Tomahawks in the VLS forward.”
“More than enough, but can we load and fire them in time?” Hal asked.
“We can buy some time.” Haugen said, picking up the microphone in his hoof, something he was getting better at. “Maneuvering, Conn. Shift main coolant pumps one, two, three and four to fast speed. Advance throttle to fifty percent power.” Looking at the helm, he went on with “Come to ahead full, Hellbender!”
“Ahead full, aye!” Morrow reached for and turned the knob on the annunciator, which jangled back. “Maneuvering acknowledges ahead full, Space Ghost!”
Just then, the speaker crackled. “Main coolant pumps one, two, three and four are in fast speed. Coming to fifty percent power,” reported the former Lieutenant Commander Papageorge, the only officer in the Subvets contingent. “Good thing your Reactor Operator stayed behind. He knows the what to do with the throttles.”
“The California is only five years old. A bit different than before, yes?”
“More than a bit. More on that later, Captain.”
“Conn, aye.” Haugen said, then shifted the MC to the 1MC circuit. “Attention, all hands, this is the Captain. All available fire control, sonar and torpedo room crew that are capable of doing their jobs, man battle stations torpedo. This is NOT a drill. Repeat, this is NOT a drill!” he declared before sounding the General Alarm for five seconds. “All other personnel stand fast until I say otherwise.”
“This is going to be interesting. Bruce, hold course and speed. Hendricksen, assist in fire control tracking.” Hal emphasized after a glance at the Captain for approval.
“Colonel Sleet, your assistance with your crew is gratefully appreciated. Sonar, Conn, direction to target?”
“Conn, Sonar. Range ten thousand yards, speed thirty knots, depth coming up through five thousand feet, bearing one-nine-five.” McCandless reported from Sonar, where he was the only watchstander on duty.
“Very well, Sonar.” Captain Haugen said as some crewfolk started filing in, manning the fire control stations. He was pleased to note that two of the dogs and a griffon were responding, taking stations at fire control, with ponies to tell them what to do.
“Conn, Torpedo Room manned and ready. Orders, sir?” Master Chief Elricki’s voice came through the JA speaker.
“Torpedo room, Captain. Load all tubes with mark 48’s, and prepare VLS tubes one through six for firing.”
“Load torpedo tubes one through four, prepare VLS tubes one through six, aye.”
“Captain, fire control manned and ready. I take it the target is the Master One bearing one-nine-five?” said a voice from Fire Control, the voice of the Assistant Weapons Officer, LTJG Winstead.
“Correct, Mr. Winstead. Inform me when tubes signal ready.”
“Aye aye, Captain.”
“Captain, I presume you want to remain on the surface?” Hal asked.
“For now, Colonel Sleet. If your chief aft can repair the piping, I will authorize a dive to one hundred feet, no more.”
“Aye, Captain. I’ll find out.” Hal said, picking up the JA phone and dialing Maneuvering.
“Pappy, Hal. See how Connie is doing, and let me know when she’s done with the welding. We may be under attack by a leviathan.”
“Oh, what fun. I’ll check on her. Maneuvering out.” Papageorge looked out the maneuvering room door. Spotting Chief Clarendon, he called out, “Chief, check out Chief Conyers down below. Once she’s done, we’re going to need full power.”
“Aye aye, sir!” Clarendon said before going down the hatch, to find Burnside helping Conyers, whose horn was lit up, welding a strongback patch to the seawater pipe. “Burnie, how’s it going?”
“Shouldn’t be long now, Chief. Back hole is patched, welding front one on now.” Burnside reported.
“Holler when you’re done, we got something deep going on, and we’re going to need full power ASAP!”
“Must be a leviathan. They’re big, nasty and fast.” Conyers muttered as she finished welding the patch. “One minute for weld to cool, then we can refill the system with seawater.”
“Okay, I’ll get on it.” Clarendon said before shooting back up the ladder to upper level. “Welding done, one minute to cool, then we can fill and vent the system, sir!”
“Sounds good to me, Chief! Need a hoof out there?”
“Just someone who can follow directions, sir.”
Mister Papageorge reached for the 2MC. “Drake, Crank, lay to Maneuvering.”
Seconds later, two earth ponies trotted up to the Maneuvering room door. “You called, sir?” The red one, Crank, asked.
“Yes. Follow the chief there. We need starboard side steam up ASAP. He’ll tell you what to do.”
“Aye, sir!” The two ponies chorused, looking at the pegasus chief.
“This way!” the chief said, leading them aft. Together, the three ponies got starboard main steam up in several minutes.
On the bridge, Captain Haugen’s weapons were being made ready. “Range to Master One now five thousand yards, bearing one-nine-five!”
“Very well, Fire Control. Colonel, check on repair status.”
“Aye, Captain.” Hal said, dialing Maneuvering again and getting a status update. “Three to four minutes. Seawater patches are holding, and system warmup is in progress.”
“Very well. Torpedo Room, Conn, status report.”
“We can use another body to help out, Captain.” Master Chief Elricki reported. “There’s only three of us here.”
“Conn aye. Hellbender, you know about torpedoes, yes?”
“Not as much as I used to, but enough to get me into trouble, Space Ghost.” Morrow reported from the helm.
Okay. Captain Machspeed, you take the helm. Hellbender, lay to the torpedo room and assist Master Chief Elricki.” Haugen ordered.
“Yes, sir! Captain, get in this seat.” Morrow said, indicating the planesman’s chair.
Cautiously, Machspeed sat down in the indicated chair. Morrow threw a couple of switches before saying, “Okay, we are holding course two-nine-zero, ahead full, on the surface. Any questions, ask Colonel Sleet.” Bruce said before getting up and heading forward and down.
“Now you can add flying a submarine to your resume, Mach!” Hal joked.
“Yeah, but I can use Amelia up here. The less I have to do, the better I can do it. She’s with the rest of my team, calming the crew.”
“I’ll handle that.” Captain Haugen said, keying the 1MC. “Captain Amelia, report to control,” he announced.
Within a minute, she came trotting in. “Someone call me?” she said.
“Amelia, take the planes, I have the helm. Somehow, I think you would hate me if you missed this chance.” Machspeed said, indicating the second seat with a hoof.
“Hate you, no. Pound the snot out of you, yes.” Amelia said, sitting down.
Hal reached between them and threw the switches Bruce threw some seconds before, and a few others. “Okay, just like the blimp, Amelia. You have elevation control, Mach has directional. Watch the indicators and follow orders exactly. We don’t have time to make any mistakes,” he instructed.
“Got it, Hal.” Amelia said, looking at the instrument panel.
“Not like flying an A380, is it?” Mach said to his partner.
“Conn, Maneuvering, starboard steam now available. Full power at your discretion.”
“Maneuvering, Conn, aye. Come to ahead flank.”
“Come to ahead flank, Conn, Maneuvering, aye.”
Hal reached between Mach and Amelia to turn the Bell Order Annunciator to the Ahead Flank position. “You’re supposed to do that with every bell change order, Mach. It’s a manual backup,” he explained.
“Conn, Torpedo Room. VLS tubes one through six are ready for launch, as are torpedo tubes one and two. Loading tubes three and four now.”
“Torpedo Room, control, aye. Fire Control, match bearings on Master One, spin up torpedo tubes one and two.”
“Spinning up torpedoes one and two. Range to target thirty-seven hundred yards and opening slowly.”
Captain Haugen watched his information display repeaters. Once the torpedoes indicated readiness, he gave the order, “Match generated bearings and shoot torpedoes one and two, Master One. Sonar, go active on Master One. Fire Control, steer the fish in. Ready VLS tubes one and two for snap shot launch.”
“Torpedo One fired.” Fire Control said as the California shuddered under the force of the launch. Torpedo Two fired.”
“Very well. Colonel Sleet, rig ship for dive. Torpedo room, reload tubes one and two with Mark 48’s.”
“Hold on reload, Captain. Wires are still attached to one and two. Tube three loaded, tube four one minute.” Master Chief Elricki said from the torpedo room.
“Nice catch, Master Chief. Fire control, time to impact?”
“Torpedo One, one minute twelve seconds. Torpedo Two, one minute twenty-two seconds” reported LTJG Winstead, who now is an orange and yellow earth pony.
“Captain, the ship is rigged for dive. Recommend we go no further than one hundred feet.” Hal said from his console.
“Understood, Colonel.” Haugen said before keying the 1MC while putting a hoof on the Diving Alarm. “Dive! Dive! Dive!” he announced while sounding the diving alarm three times. “Chief of the watch, vent all main ballast tanks, planes down five degrees, right ten degrees rudder, come to course zero-zero-zero.”
“Venting all main ballast tanks, aye, sir.” Hal said as he stood up on his hind legs and opened all six ballast tank vent valves. A sound like a million toilets flushing ran through the ship.
“Elevators five degrees down.” Amelia said, catching on to the repeat-back mode the Navy used, pushing the yoke forward until the indicator read five down.
“Right ten degrees, come to course zero-zero-zero.” Mach said, turning his wheel right until the rudder indicator said ten degrees.
“Helm, make your depth one hundred feet.”
“One hundred feet, yes, sir.” Amelia said as she found the depth gauge. “Just like flying an A380. Take things slow and easy,” she said to herself.
“Conn, Sonar. Master One is not dodging at all. It is still trying to close in, range thirty-eight hundred yards, impact of Torpedo One in twenty seconds,” reported STS1 McCandless.
“I see, Sonar. Here’s hoping.”
“Passing fifty feet depth. Shall I lower all masts?” Hal asked, keeping an eye on all gauges, knowing Mach and Amelia do not know Navy procedures.
“No, leave them up. We’ll be surfacing in a moment or so.” Captain Haugen said as LTJG Winstead said, “Torpedo one hit! Torpedo two closing!”
“Let’s hope it is enough, Mr. Winstead.” Captain Haugen said drily as the sound of the first torpedo’s detonation rumbled through the sub.
“Torpedo two hit!” came the call from Fire Control.
“Sonar, getting anything from that direction?”
“No, Captain. Slow to one-third and give me a moment, please.” McCandless asked.
“Sonar, Conn, aye. Captain Machspeed, slow to ahead one third. Planesman, make your depth five-zero feet. Turning photonics in that direction.”
“Ahead one third, yes, sir.” Machspeed said, turning the knob on the annunciator so the arrow pointed to one-third.
“Make depth fifty feet, yes, sir.” Amelia said, easing the planes back gently.
After about a minute, the sonar imaging cleared enough to get a better picture of what happened when the torpedoes hit their target. “Captain, I’m picking up some biologic signals from that direction. Real faint, and heading to the surface. Whatever it is, we hurt it bad.” McCandless reported.
“Very well, Sonar. Colonel, shut all ballast tank vent valves, normal blow all main ballast tanks. Surface the ship. Planes, up ten degrees. Helm, steady on course zero-zero-zero.” Haugen ordered before keying the 1MC. “Surface! Surface!” he called out, hitting the diving alarm twice.
Once Hal verified all ballast tank valves shut, he threw the switch for a normal blow of all main ballast tanks. A slow flushing sound ran through the submarine as air forced the water out of the ballast tanks. The ship took a bit of an up angle before breaking surface.
Captain Haugen swung the photonic mast cameras in the direction of their target. A mass of disturbed water was showing on the surface, streaked with red and green. He put the image on shipwide broadcast as a massive body broke the surface, a massive broken body, the front part of it blown to a bloody pulp, some fins twitching feebly as blood and ichor sprayed from the thing.
“Charybdis is not going to like this.” Hal muttered, Mach and Amelia nodding in agreement.
“Who is Charybdis, Colonel?” LTJG Winstead asked from Fire Control.
“Charybdis is not a who, it’s a what. A large demonic creature that has taken over the oceans of this planet. He suffers surface traffic, only occasionally sinking a ship. Usually, he and his sea minions raid shoreline villages, razing them and taking lives. This looks like what can be called a regional supervisor. One of Charybdis’ lieutenants. Whatever Charybdis truly is, it ain’t gonna like this.” Hal explained to the Control room crew.
“How can we be safe from this Charybdis?” Captain Haugen asked.
“By making it to Sydney Harbour before Charybdis can mobilize an army. Once the ship is in littoral waters, or the Harbour, it generally will not attack, because we can fight back.” Machspeed explained.
“Any idea for guidance there?”
“As a matter of fact, yes, Captain. I command the Aeronautical Returnee rescue and Response squad, or the A.R.R.R.S. I have several good pegasi working for me, and we can use them as guides to the Harbour. You have been in touch with Harbour Control, yes? In that case, I can arrange to get a welcome mat set up.” Machspeed said from his seat.
“Captain Machspeed, make your arrangements. Planesman, take helm control as well. Colonel, set that up, please.” Haugen ordered, but phrasing it nicely. Mach got up from his seat, twisting a little to get the kinks out.
Keying his radio, Mach called Flash. “Bring the pegasi and meet me in the wardroom, Flash.”
“Will do, Mach.”
Machspeed made his way to the wardroom, to be met by his wife and the team pegasi. “I need you four to find Sydney Harbour and guide us that way. I would not say we’re lost, but I’m sure this ship needs to be led to where we should go. Featherdrop, you circle the ship. The rest of you, find Sydney. We should be about ten miles out. Flashpoint will get you out of the ship, and will act as a lookout and signal relay so I can give them to the Captain. Let’s do this, ponies!”
Sunbeam asked, “What do you think our cut of rescuing this ship would be, Mach?”
“A bit more than an A380 or a space shuttle. Details later. Let’s get to work!” Flashpoint got the pegasi up and out of the ship, before teleporting to the top of the sail.
Meanwhile, Captain Haugen was in Radio, having turned over command to Colonel Sleet, with orders to maintain course and speed until he got back, and keeping fire control manned just in case. Torpedo tubes and Tomahawks were all ready for snap shot launch, so he took the chance to call in to Sydney Harbor Control.
“You did WHAT to one of Charybdis’ underbosses?” Green Wave said incredulously over the radio.
“We managed to kill it. We used two torpedoes to be sure. We’ve been advised to make best speed to Sydney Harbor before Charybdis finds out. Right now, we need to determine where you are and where we are. Without GPS, we’re not too confident of our position. I have the ARRRS pegasuses up searching.”
“The word you want is ‘pegasi’, Captain. I’ll alert the airport tower to try to call them, and I’ll send out a motor launch once we’re sure of where you are.”
“Sounds good. Right now, we’re heading due north from our previous position, trying to clear datum from the kill.”
“If by that, you mean getting out of the fireplace before the cook comes back, good move. Suggest you come to two-seven-zero to head towards shore. Once you spot land, turn north again until we find you or the ARRRS starts giving you good steers.”
“Sounds like a good plan. Let me patch the radio to the conn, so I won’t have to dash to Radio to talk to you. California ten-ten.”
“Sydney Harbour Control standing by.”
Captain Haugen worked the computer to patch the ship to shore radio to the control room before returning to take the conn again. He found Machspeed waiting for him. “Your pegasuses in place, Captain?”
“That’s ‘pegasi’, and yes, Captain. They are searching for shore.”
“Harbor Control advised me to head due west until either we sight land or your spotters find Sydney before turning north. They will send an escort boat out once we have a better position fix.”
“Smart of them. My wife is up on your…” Mach pointed up, forgetting the words he was looking for.
“Up on the Bridge? Let me turn on the bridge console, so she can call down here.” Haugen went up on the conn, reached for a switch but could not quite manage to throw it. “Turn this switch here, please.”
Mach’s horn lit up and the switch turned, powering the bridge console. Haugen picked up the microphone to it. “Madam, you may now talk to us by using the microphone. Be advised, we will be turning to proceed due west until land is sighted, then head north. Harbor Control will send out an escort once we get close.”
“Sounds good to me, Captain. Do you need Machspeed down there, or can I bring him up here? He’s the pilot, I’m just the teleporter.” Flashpoint said from the bridge.
Haugen thought for a few seconds before replying. “If you want him up there, I can see fit. However, if I find a need for him down here, I will call. Deal?”
“Deal.” Flashpoint said before she teleported to the conn, smiled at the Captain, touched Mach, then blinked out.
“I could be able to do that?” Captain Haugen said, intrigued by the thought.
“It’s possibuhl, it’s possibuhl!” Hal said from the Chief’s board in a hokey southern voice.
It was several hours later when the California neared Sydney Harbour, cruising on the surface. About half the crew had stabilized enough to assume standing watches, enough that the assistance provided by the ARRRS and the SUBVETS was no longer needed, just good to have when fine manipulation was called for. The escort ship from the Harbour was chugging away two hundred yards in front of the sub, curious ponies at the stern, marveling at a sight none had seen before, that of the big black bulk of the submarine cutting through the waters of the Pacific Ocean.
Inside, Captain Haugen still maintained the fire control tracking party and torpedo staffing. He also had two crew ponies in Sonar, keeping a lookout for more unknown subsurface life. Less than a mile from harbor, they got a contact.
“Conn, Sonar. Getting an unusual biologic contact, range one hundred thousand yards, depth twenty feet, bearing zero-five-seven, speed… seventy knots.” STS1 McCandless reported.
“Sonar, Conn, aye. Looks like Charybdis found out about us. Fire Control, spin up Tomahawks One through Four. Man Battle Stations Missile.” Haugen ordered.
“Yes, Captain!” said the Weapons Officer, LT. Hardesty, who had relieved LTJG Winstead.
Haugen triggered the General Alarm before passing the word on the 1MC. “Man Battle Stations Missile. All Hands, man Battle Stations Missile. All hands cleared to go back to duty, that is,” he announced.
Haugen then called the bridge. “Captain Machspeed, we have a sonar contact, bearing zero-five-seven, fifty nautical miles out, closing at seventy knots just below the surface. Can your lookouts give me an idea on what I’m going to be shooting at?”
“By the time they got a good look, it will be too close. I would advise shooting first and praying. Something moving that fast can only be from Charybdis.” Machspeed reported from the bridge.
“Okay, then. Please inform your lookouts, and get down off the bridge before I fire missiles. I don’t want you catching the exhaust.”
“Two minutes, Captain. Let me call my crew first.”
“Let me know when you come down, Captain.” Haugen said before hanging up.
Hal Sleet, Hendricksen and Morrow came running into Control, the others still helping in the engine room. “Where do you want us, Captain?” Hal asked.
“Colonel, you and Hendricksen up here with me. Hellbender, lay to the torpedo room and assist there. If we need torpedoes, we are so screwed. Hendricksen, you put on the radio headset and coordinate with Harbor Control.”
“Aye aye, Space Ghost!” Morrow said before heading for the torpedo room.
“Space Ghost?” Hal whispered as he and Hendricksen got up onto the conn platform.
“Long story. We’ll have time later.” Haugen muttered as stations called in, stating readiness for battle stations.
“Captain, Tomahawk tubes one through four are ready for firing.” LT. Hardesty reported.
“Coordinate with Sonar for bearings. I want a bracket pattern, one that will ensure at least one hitting it, preferably more.”
“Okay, sir. Pray it does not swerve or dive before the Tomahawks arrive.” Hardesty said as he set up the console for the flight paths desired, a process that took three minutes instead of thirty seconds. In that time, Machspeed reported in that he and Flashpoint were on the mess decks, and his pegasi were heading off to standby distance, one going to warn the escort ship.
“Missiles ready for launch, Captain!” LT. Hardesty finally could say.
Haugen managed to place a key in a console and turn it. “Weapons free! Rapid fire VLS tubes one through four!” he ordered.
“Rapid fire VLS tubes one through four, aye!” Hardesty said, keying his own console.
There were four thumps in rapid succession from the forward part of the ship as the four Tomahawk missiles were fired from their tubes, their rockets flaring and dropping free as they lofted the missiles up out of the water. All four missile’s jet engines activated, rapidly pushing their lethal payloads northeasterly up over the horizon and out of sight. The ponies on the escort ship marveled at the sight.
“Missiles away, Captain!” Hardesty reported.
“Come to ahead standard, we have a port to make. Missile flight time?”
“About four minutes, give or take, depending on what Master Two does.”
“Maneuvering acknowledges ahead standard, Captain,” the helmsman reported.
“Weps, spin up Tomahawks Five through Eight. If this salvo doesn’t off the thing, we’ll need another.”
Four minutes later, Weapons reported, “Warhead detonations recorded, bearing zero-five-seven true. Let’s hope we got the kill.”
“I hope so, too.” Haugen said.
“Almost in to port, Captain. Want to handle mooring from the bridge?” Colonel Sleet asked.
“Not a bad idea, but let’s see if more trouble is coming from seaward first.”
“Captain, signal from shore. They have a pier being made ready for you, one well away from the harbor mouth. By the time we get there, it will be ready.” Hendricksen reported.
“Good to hear. Now, to see how long before we get to the harbor itself. But before that…” Haugen picked up the mic and called Sonar.
“Conn, Sonar. I’m not picking up anything from target point. No noise at all. No death throes, no movement. Whatever was out there, I think it is quite dead, sir.”
“Let’s hope that’s the case, McCandless. Keep watching that direction, just in case we’re wrong.”
“Conn, Sonar, aye.”
It was not until late in the afternoon, outside time, and far too damn early in the morning, ship’s time, before the California found itself securely moored to a pier at the old Jones Street Wharf. The reactor needed to be kept running, because the Sydney port authorities have yet to build a rectifier to supply proper AC power to the ship. The injured, traumatized and dead were removed to find proper care, or burial, ashore, leaving the ship with a total of fifty-eight functioning crew, out of a starting crew of one hundred thirty-four.
Captain Haugen was sitting pier side, with a representative from Sydney Maritime Authority, the ARRRS team, and the Subvets team. Lt. Hardesty, now the California’s Executive Officer, remained aboard, but had radio communications with his Captain. A small kitchen setup was also nearby, supplying fresh food and coffee to the ship’s crew.
“I’ll see to it that Returnee educators will be here, starting in the morning. Your casualties are being looked after, but I also understand you have to keep some parts of your ship working at all times, for now. Rehabilitation will take longer that way, but we will see it done,” said the SMA rep, Red Tide, a red and sea-green unicorn mare.
“On behalf of my ship and crew, you have our thanks for your support, Red Tide.” Captain Haugen said, sipping from a mug of coffee. He had been awake now for almost forty hours, and the toll was showing.
“Captain, you definitely need to get some rest. Would you like to have us Subvets stay an extra day, to give you some more support until you can catch up with yourselves?” Colonel Sleet asked. “I recognize the look in your eyes. Been a long time since I looked that way.”
“We of the ARRRS also offer our assistance, for a day or so, while you get yourself situated and acclimated.” Machspeed offered. Both groups stomped and whistled their support.
Haugen looked thoughtful, or was that asleep, for a few moments before replying. “Your offer is gratefully accepted, for not more than forty-eight hours. If we don’t have our act together by then, we don’t deserve your aid,” he said with a yawn.
“I can have another detachment of Subvets out here in the morning, local time, to spell us.” Hal said.
“Volunteering me again, Hal?” Flashpoint said with a laugh.
“Well, I do need to go back to Vegas long enough to do two things, they being arranging for a fresh Subvets team, and explaining to Raven just what the hell I have been doing for the past seven hours. You’re going to help there.” Hal said with a groan, dreading the upcoming encounter with his wife.
“Plus, I’m going to need help explaining things to MY wife and daughter, too.” Morrow said from where he was sitting.
“Harper’s due in a month or so, right?” Hal asked. Bruce just nodded.
Machspeed got up with a smile. “Seems like you two need a trip home, and fast. Anypony else need a ride back home?”
“Half an hour, Mach. I need to feel stable before I go anywhere.” Flash said, having rediscovered a bit of queasiness in her hours on the sub.
“Okay, then. Half an hour before the return flight to Vegas and Brisbane departs from Pier Six.” Mach said, sitting back down.
“What is bothering me is what am I to do with the ship, my crew and myself?” Captain Haugen asked.
“That, Captain, is up to you and the Sydney authorities.” Red Tide told him. “You only just got here. Bureaucracy has yet to figure things out.”
“Some things never change, do they?” Haugen said, draining his coffee mug.
Three months later, Mach and Flash were visiting Hal and his family in Las Vegas. “Got some news about the California you may want to hear.” Mach told his friends.
“Oh? What’s news with them? I admit I have not been keeping up. Blue Blizz has been keeping me busy as his adjutant.” Hal said, sipping from a beer.
“The Sydney authorities have offered to buy the sub, but not as a warship. They want it as a power station, the nuclear reactor aboard being estimated to provide electrical power for about fifty years. Probably less, as components wear out. We’ve been offered a contract to ferry high-tech components to various research places.
“The crew has settled in, for the most part. Seven have gone completely insane, but the rest have stabilized in their new society. Some are staying aboard to help operate the ship, while others are being hired as instructors or workers in Sydney’s industrial areas. Captain Haugen is doing well in his unicorn studies, and the rest of the crew are doing well in theirs.” Mach reported.
“Good for them! I’m glad to see a rescue come out so well. Any news of Charybdis?” Hal asked.
Mach shook his head. “Nothing. We know we killed the one, but by the time they got a research ship out to study the corpse, nothing was left. Nothing was found at the second spot, either. Shipping has been left alone, as far as anyone can tell.”
“And may it stay that way.” Flash added. “Oh, how are Bruce and Harper doing?”
Raven smiled as she used her glow to bring over a photo album. “She gave birth to a lovely pegasus colt seven weeks ago. They named him Hard Charger, because he was born in a hurry and hasn’t stopped running full tilt yet,” she explained as she showed pictures of a blue-green pegasus colt with white wings and a striped light blue/dark blue mane.
“Leaving divots in the duvets?” Mach asked as he and Flash looked over the pictures.
“That, and driving his parents and big sister up one wall and down the other.”
“Kalie just loves him, while Onyx can’t wait for him to get old enough to talk, so they can get into trouble together.” Hal said.
“Let’s just see if they can get out of trouble as fast as they can get IN to trouble!” Raven said, brandishing her small skillet in her glow, to everyone’s amusement.
Dark Arrow by Stellar Light Sparkle
NOTE: This story was written by Stellar Light Sparkle who had some ideas they wanted to explore in "Safe Landings".
Machspeed was working on the paperwork for the A.R.R.R.S. latest rescue, an American C-5M Galaxy transport. It had had four Abrams tanks and other interesting vehicles on-board, and over two hundred soldiers, maintenance personnel and crew who were now Ponies, Griffons and one Minotaur. He looked out at the massive aircraft sitting on the tarmac of the former R.A.A.F. Amberley base, as the soldiers were milling about, waiting for busses to take them to the settlement where Brisbane once stood.
Just down the runway, at one of the far taxi-way parking bays, was the Space Shuttle Atlantis. The company that had won the rights to salvage her was doing a good job of it so far, but a group from Brisbane had engaged them before they had even begun to work. They had paid to have the shuttle gutted, but the spaceframe and body left intact, so they could put it in a museum hangar near the Brisbane River. Machspeed shook his head, but with a smile. He had no idea how they intended to get Atlantis from Amberley to Brisbane, but they seemed determined, and he wished them luck.
Then Pounder knocked on his door. "Mach, we have a problem." He said.
"What sort-of problem?" Machspeed asked the Earth Pony stallion.
"Rangi in New Zealand just contacted the office, and Arclight was able to send us a note. There's another aircraft out there and it's inbound, but the pilot is being very cagey about telling us any details. She's just asking for landing instructions." Pounder replied.
"Did she indicate what she's flying, or where she is?" Machspeed asked.
"All she said was she's U.S. Air Force, and she's inbound. She should be in landing range of us just outside of four hours." Pounder answered.
Machspeed thought on that. "Hang on. One of the Air Force personnel on that Galaxy was a general. Maybe he might get the pilot to loosen up." Machspeed suggested. "Get Flashpoint ready for a teleport back to Auckland. We can talk to the pilot from there. I'll go see if I can find the General."
"Rojer, Mach." Pounder said, and left, as Machspeed rounded up his papers and headed for the returnees. After asking several of the crew and other personnel from the Galaxy, he tracked down the General, who was now a very big and handsome pegasus stallion... along with his wife, a unicorn mare, and their three foals.
"General, I am so glad you haven't been moved yet." Machspeed said as he approached the family.
The pegasus grinned at Machspeed. "Well! If it isn't the stallion we have to thank for our safe return to earth." He said, as Machspeed found himself surrounded by the three foals: a pegasus colt, a pegasus filly, and a unicorn filly.
"Heya kids." Machspeed said, then he looked at the General. "Sir, we have a situation that we could use your help with." He told the stallion.
"Oh? What kind-of situation?" Mach was asked.
"We've gotten word that another U.S. Air Force aircraft is in-bound, but the crew is being cagey about details." Machspeed told him.
"And you think someone with former rank might help loosen their tongues a little?" He asked.
"It's worth a shot, Sir." Machspeed said.
The general nodded. "Very well. Can my family come with us?" He asked.
Machspeed grinned. "Of course." He said to them all, as they gathered around the General. "Come this way." Machspeed led them all into the 'terminal', until he'd found Flashpoint.
"Hi Mach Honey, what's up?" Flashpoint asked as she softly nuzzled Machspeed's muzzle. "And who are your new friends?"
"Flashpoint, this is..." Machspeed realised he didn't even know the general's name, let alone that of his family.
The general chuckled. "Miss Flashpoint, I am Douglas Makeland, and this is my wife Shelley, and our..." He looked at their foals.
"Foals." Flashpoint answered helpfully.
Douglas chuckled as Shelley giggled. "Just so, Ma'am." He replied. "Our foals are Michael, Sarah and Alicia." He motioned to the three youngsters, who beamed as each of their names were mentioned.
Machspeed smiled as well. "We have to get to Rangi, Flash. There's another aircraft in-bound, and we need Douglas here to 'facilitate communication' with them." He explained.
Flashpoint grinned. "You're using fancy terms again, Mach." She kissed him deeply, to disgusted noises from the foals. "Keep it up."
Douglas chuckled at the kids' reaction; so very typical. "Okay, so how are we getting there?" Douglas asked.
"Gather around us, Doug, and we'll show you." Machspeed said, and once they were all close, Machspeed and Flashpoint linked to the Makelands by Douglas' and Michael and Sarah's wings, Flashpoint's horn lit, and they all felt as if the room they were in suddenly changed to another room entirely.
"Whoa!" Douglas exclaimed, looking about. "How'd you do that?"
"Teleportation, Doug. It's my speciality." Flashpoint answered, a smug smile on her face.
Alicia came up to Flashpoint. "Can I do that?" She asked in her high, young voice.
Flashpoint looked at the unicorn filly. "Maybe you will, when you get old enough." She told the eight-year-old filly.
"Ah poot." Alicia frowned, as her siblings giggled. "I wanna do it now!"
"Can you make your horn light up, like this?" Flashpoint asked, her horn-tip lighting up with a soft glow.
Alicia tilted her head to one side, then closed her eyes and concentrated. After a few seconds, there came a couple of sparks of light from the tip of her short horn, but she couldn't hold it steady enough yet. As the little filly panted, Flashpoint gently patted Alicia on the withers. "That was good, Honey. Keep practising, and I might be your instructor once you get old enough."
Alicia nodded, tongue hanging out, as Machspeed chuckled. "Come on, Doug, Rangi's through here."
"Lead the way, Mach." Douglas replied, and they walked into another room, as Flashpoint and Shelley took the foals out to where they could play.
Machspeed led Douglas to the radio room, where Rangi was waiting. "Heya Mach." Rangi said as he saw the pair enter. "You here about the new contact?" He asked.
Douglas' eyes had gone wide, for Rangi was a smallish dragon!(or Drake, as Douglas found out later). He calmed down quickly, though, as training took over and he reined in his shock. Smiling, he held out a fore-hoof. "Douglas." He said, looking straight at Rangi.
"Pleased ta meetcha, Doug." Rangi replied. "I take it you're part of the squad for this time around?"
Douglas chuckled. "Apparently." He answered.
"Doug's here to try and convince the Air Force pilot to communicate properly, Rangi." Machspeed explained.
"Oh? You some kind-of specialist?" Rangi asked Douglas.
"You might say that." Douglas said, smiling. "Five years as an U.S. Air Force general gives me a bit of leverage."
"Whoa! And I thought you having time in the R.A.A.F. was something, Mach." Rangi said to the green unicorn with a grin. "So, how are we gonna do this?" Rangi asked.
"Call the bird up and I'll take over talking to them when they're on." Douglas told Rangi.
"Okay, you're the boss on this one, General." Rangi said with a grin. He powered up his radios, then said "Pegasus, this is Auckland Air Traffic Control, do you read me? Over."
Rangi sent the request two more times before they heard "Auckland Air Traffic Control, this is Pegasus. We read you three-by-five, over." Came a female voice through the speaker, as others from the A.R.R.R. Squad gathered in the back of the room.
"Rojer that, Pegasus. You guys still reluctant to help us to get you down? Over." Rangi asked.
"All we need is landing instructions and a beacon to guide us to Amberley, Auckland Control. You don't need to know anything more. Over." The female voice replied.
Rangi shrugged at the stallions, then held out a headset to Douglas. Douglas walked forward to Rangi and slipped the headset on his head. "Pegasus, this is Eagle Five, do you read me? Over."
There was a pause, then the radio crackled to life. "This is Pegasus, please say again? Over." was the reply.
"Pegasus, this is Eagle Five. I know I'm probably the last person you expected to hear from, but that's neither here nor there." Douglas said. "Who am I speaking to? Over."
"I'm Colonel Samantha Holland, Sir." The pilot replied. "I'm here with Captain Fred Kellman, and Lieutenants Jacob Rossini and Michelle Cullen. Over."
Douglas then said to Colonel Holland. "Colonel, this is General Douglas Makeland of SAC." Doug said into the mike. "I am about to identify myself to you as your senior officer and, as far as I know, the most senior officer left in SAC. Do you understand that, Colonel Holland? Over."
"Aye, General. I am ready to receive. Over." Colonel Holland replied.
As the A.R.R.R.S. team listened, Douglas spoke a series of long code-phrases down the radio, with Colonel Holland saying other strings in reply. Eventually, Douglas finished and concluded with: "Are you satisfied, Colonel? Over."
"General, Sir! I acknowledge you as my commanding officer, Sir. Over." Holland said back.
"Very good, Colonel. Now, don't worry about your former mission, it's no longer relevant. I take it you and your co-pilots have become Ponies? Over." Douglas asked.
"Umm... Yes, Sir." Holland answered. "I take it... That it's not just us, Sir? Over."
"No, Colonel. The whole world is like this now, but Ponies are only one of the many different races we were changed into. That isn't important for now, Colonel. Getting you down safely is." Douglas told Holland. "Give me a sitrep. Over."
"General, we're about four hours' flying time away from Amberley Base. We have plenty of fuel, as we had just tankered before this happened. But Sir... We're flying a Spirit, Sir. She's a Live Bow; we're carrying five Blunts and a Sharpened Arrow. Over."
"Good god..." Douglas exclaimed softly. "How long? Over." He asked.
"The Arrow is set for zero-alt, Sir. We tried dumping it, but our bay doors seemed to be jammed. Can a solution be found, Sir? Over." Holland asked.
Douglas thought. "All I can say is, Colonel, that we have two hours to put one together. I'll get back to you. I'll use code-word Delta to identify myself when I log back in. Over."
"Rojer that, General. Code-word Delta to be used for identification. We'll be waiting your next transmission. Pegasus Out." and Rangi flicked the radio to 'Off'.
Douglas looked shaken. "My God... just when I was starting to think we'd left all that in the past..."
"What's wrong, Doug?" Amelia asked him, as the rest gave him some space.
"The aircraft they're on is a B-2 Spirit Stealth Bomber." Douglas informed them. "They were on a mission when they were sent forward and Changed. From what Colonel Holland just told me... they're carrying six Nukes, and one of them is live and armed."
The look of horror almost all the ponies had there was something to behold. "So... if they try to land..." Amelia said.
"The landing will set the Nuke off." Douglas confirmed.
"Holy shit..." Machspeed said.
Flashpoint was very worried, even moreso because she had no idea what was being said. "Mach Honey... what is a 'Nuke'?"
Douglas spoke up. "Miss Flashpoint, a 'Nuke' is short for a Nuclear Weapon, one of the most devastating weapons humanity ever invented." He explained. "Needless to say, I and no other sane pony would ever want anything like that even coming near the shores of Australia. One of those on board, according to those on the bomber, is activated and ready to detonate if it reaches sea level or it hits the ground... and that includes landing." Douglas told Flashpoint.
Flashpoint looked absolutely horrified at the explanation, but Machspeed then asked "Is there anything we can do, Doug?"
"I believe so." Douglas replied. "There were several contingency plans to deal with such a problem, but we really need to be on that aircraft to work any of them." Then he looked Machspeed up and down. "And perhaps, my good friend, you might consider enlisting in the Air Force for a while? Colonel Holland would probably consider you more capable of taking control of a Spirit if she was under the impression you were one of those personnel she was familiar with, and could trust."
Machspeed's eyebrows went to maximum altitude on his wide-eyed face. "You want me... to join the U.S.A.F.?" He asked.
Douglas smiled. "I do believe it would give Colonel Holland the confidence in your abilities to allow you to take over from her without her complaint, or perhaps even official reticence, even with me there." Douglas stated. "Plus you have piloted U.S.A.F. aircraft before, in the C-5M you so expertly piloted into Amberley. This will give you official status for the others on the Spirit."
Machspeed looked at Flashpoint, who grinned and nodded. "Whoah. Okay, General, you're on." He replied.
"Excellent." Douglas replied, grinning back. "Now, repeat after me... oh, and use your human name as well, if you please." He said to Machspeed.
"I, Abraham Colburn, being of sound mind and body..." Machspeed repeated after Douglas, as the General led Machspeed through the official United States Air Force recruitment oath.
After they were done, Douglas shook hoofs with Machspeed with a soft smile. "Welcome to the U.S.A.F., Colonel Colburn." He said to Machspeed.
Machspeed and Flashpoint's eyes widened as Douglas said this. "Wha...? A colonel?" Machspeed asked.
"Of course." Douglas answered. "You have to have equal rank with Colonel Holland or she won't let you give her orders, or might not let you have command of the aircraft." Douglas reasoned. "And then you can also order the other crew about as well, especially if I say you out-rank Holland. They will accept this and obey, as they have been taught."
"If you say so, General." Machspeed agreed, saluting Douglas, who chuckled and returned the salute. "Let's get back to Amberley, Flash Love. We're going to have to get uniforms tailored to us, and find where that bomber is located."
Flashpoint nodded, and the trio vanished again.
After half-an-hour at Amberley, while Flashpoint was getting a lock on the Spirit bomber, Machspeed and Douglas came out of the terminal at Amberley, now dressed in U.S. Air Force uniform jackets, Douglas' modified to fit him, while Machspeed had managed to borrow one from one of the colonels who'd been on-board the Galaxy transport. One of the unicorns had also managed to carve him a nametag to match the one with the other colonel's name on it. "Are you sure this is necessary, Doug?" Machspeed asked.
"We have to look the part, Mach." Douglas reiterated. "Colonel Holland is going to expect to see certain things when we arrive: Military discipline and bearing; understanding of procedures; and awareness and respect of Rank, as you should know from your time with the R.A.A.F. The uniform will give you as much weight to your credibility as your thinking as an officer." He explained to Machspeed. "If you can think like a colonel and act like a colonel, you will be a colonel in their eyes. You have to act like a ranked officer: expect salutes from those of lesser rank than yourself, even Colonel Holland. Give them a glare if they don't offer you the respect due to somepony of..." Douglas stopped, then chuckled. "Somepony... it's starting to get into me, isn't it?" Doug asked.
Machspeed chuckled as well. "It gets into everypony eventually, Sir." He replied. "It's only natural."
Douglas nodded. "All right. Let's practise some more." He suggested and, with the help of some of the other personnel from the Galaxy crew, Machspeed relearned how to be an officer... and learned how to respond and initiate things as a much higher-ranked officer as well.
Eventually, Flashpoint came to them and said "I've got a lock on the Spirit, Doug. Are we ready?"
Douglas nodded. "I think so. Your husband remembers how to be an officer quite well, Miss Flashpoint. But first, we have to get in contact with the Spirit again, and that means going back to New Zealand."
Flashpoint nodded. "Anytime you're ready, then."
Douglas nodded back. "Then let's get there. The sooner we solve this conundrum, the sooner we get that aircraft back on the ground safely."
Flashpoint nodded, and with the pair of uniformed stallions pressing into her, they all teleported back to Rangi's radio shack. "Hey again, Ponies." Rangi said as they walked in. "You ready to go... whoah!" Rangi said as he saw Machspeed in uniform. "Hey, Mach! Tight duds. You go and leave A.R.R.R.S. for the U.S. Air Force?"
"A temporary transfer." Machspeed answered after chuckling with Douglas. "Got to look the part when dealing with the Spirit crew."
Rangi nodded as he powered up his radios again. "I take it you're ready to go?"
"That's correct, Rangi." Douglas replied this time. "Are you still in contact with Pegasus?"
"That's a big affirmative, General." Rangi confirmed. "I've been telling them a bit about the state of the world as it is now. I think they're starting to handle it, even if they did go silent there for nearly ten minutes a while ago."
"I can imagine." Douglas commented as he slipped the pony-sized headset back on. He nodded to Rangi, who switched the radio over to 'active'. "Pegasus, this is Eagle Five, do you copy? Over."
After a few seconds, the reply came back clearer than before. "Eagle Five, this is Pegasus. We're getting you at five-by-five now, Sir. Over." Colonel Holland's voice came back to them.
"Rojer that, Pegasus. Identifier: 'Neopolitan' is in effect. Over." Douglas said to her.
"Rojer that, General. Good to hear your voice again, Sir." Holland replied. "Can we assume you have a solution to our predicament, Sir? Over."
"Indeed, Colonel. I have a pilot that can fly your bird, as well as a few possible ways to get rid of your cargo." Douglas told her. "We've also got a way to get to you. Don't doubt what I am telling you, Colonel. I travelled from Amberley to Auckland in an instant just now, and we're going to be aboard your bird very shortly. Have your crew retire to their bunks to give us some room in front of them to arrive in, and we'll be there as soon as you're ready. Over."
Machspeed saw, out the door of the radio room, Flashpoint was now dressed in her safety vest-type jacket, the A.R.R.R.S. logo along her sides, both sides of the velcro fastener, as well as on the front across her chest. He grinned at her and she grinned back, nodding at the logo. He nodded back and returned his attention to Douglas and Rangi as Flashpoint walked up beside him.
"Rojer that, General. We'll be waiting. Pegasus, Out."
"And here we go." Flashpoint said as the stallions pressed up against her. She concentrated for a moment, her horn lighting up, then they vanished...
Colonel Samantha Holland had seen some wierd things in her time. She thought that turning into a Pony was definitely amongst the most extreme of those, but when three Ponies just appeared inside her Spirit bomber, way out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean... her mind got derailed for a couple of seconds.
Douglas looked about, seeing the four crew members there, three on the bunks while one was standing beside the pilots' positions. They'd managed to shed their flight suits, as they didn't fit them any longer, and he saw they were all pegasi now, something that made him smile. He looked at Machspeed, who nodded and yelled "ATTENTION!" That snapped all four of the Air Force ponies out of their trances.
Douglas stepped forward, as the four moved into line to one side of the slightly-cramped cockpit area. Being Ponies made it easier to have all seven of them standing there, and Flashpoint hung back as Douglas and Machspeed faced off with the flight crew. The four saluted first, Douglas and Machspeed returning their salutes, then Douglas began with "Colonel, Captain, Lieutenants; I am General Makeland, this is Colonel Colburn." Machspeed nodded at the flight crew.
"General, Colonel." Holland replied.
"And this is my wife, Flashpoint." Machspeed added, as Flashpoint moved beside Machspeed. "I also go by the name Machspeed now... my 'Pony' name, if you like." Machspeed explained.
The four looked at one another, then Holland asked. "So... everyone's like this now?" She asked.
"More or less." Flashpoint answered. "There are a lot of other races here on Earth now, but Humanity as you knew it no longer exists on Earth."
"The few humans who escaped the original calamity that changed all our ancestors... from what we do know, they had to live in very specific shelters, surrounded by anti-mana shielding, until they found a way to leave Earth and head out into space, to try and find a place that isn't saturated with Mana - Mana being the name of the energy that Ponies and others can process to give us our magical abilities." Machspeed explained. He'd put this little speech together a few years back, then practised it until he could say it off by heart. "Unfortunately, mana is deadly to humans as we were. So being Ponies or any of the other lifeforms we have been transmuted into... it's the only way we can survive being on Earth now."
The four looked at each other. "I see." Holland replied. "So... how did we get back here? You said we're over three thousand years in the future?"
Machspeed and Flashpoint nodded. "You are what we refer to now as 'Returnees'; you're people who were shoved forward in the Timestream, because Earth just after the Calamity couldn't handle the impact of billions of changing people." Machspeed explained. "Like yourselves, General Makeland and I are also Returnees; Douglas here returned less than a day ago, I've been here for nearly twenty years. Flashpoint was born in this time, though." And he nuzzled Flashpoint tenderly.
"So... what year is it?" Samantha asked.
"It is the year, by the Gregorian Calendar, 5253 Common Era." Machspeed told them all.
"Whoa!" Fred Kellman replied, the others showing similar states of astonishment. "And I thought Buck Rogers had it bad..."
That got chuckles from everyone who knew what Fred had referenced, and confused looks from Flashpoint. "I'll explain later." Machspeed whispered to her.
"All right, let's see about your little problem then, shall we?" Douglas suggested.
Fred led them to the access to the bomb-bay, behind the folding bunks. "I tried using the disarm codes I have on it, it refused to acknowledge them." He told Douglas. "I keep getting error messages." The door was just big enough for the four ponies to get through, although with more ease than a full-sized human would have had squeezing through them. The fold-down catwalks made it easy to stand inside the bay as well. Douglas had Flashpoint get out the laptop which could be used to access the bomb's electronics, and the four of them just fit inside, as Fred helped Machspeed plug the laptop into the access port of the armed device. "Hopefully, now that you're here, it might respond to being directly accessed, rather than by the methods I was using before."
"We can hope." Machspeed replied, the bomb's electronics lighting up as the laptop fired up as well. Fred entered the laptop's password, then Fred stood to one side of Machspeed as Douglas stood on the other. Machspeed entered the codes Fred told him, but they got the same error messages as before.
"Maybe your codes will make this piece of Taiwanese junk behave, General." Fred suggested, as Machspeed and Douglas chuckled.
"Another inside joke?" Flashpoint asked as she held the laptop firmly in her magic.
"Movie quote." Machspeed explained.
"Yeah. It goes: 'American components, Russian components, all made in Taiwan!' " Fred grinned.
Douglas just shook his head with a grin as Machspeed chuckled. Flashpoint looked only a little less confused, as Machspeed smiled warmly at her. "Later." He repeated.
Douglas read out to Machspeed the Master Disarm Codes he'd learned off by heart, but the bomb refused to co-operate. "Well, that leaves me stumped." Douglas said with a puzzled look.
"Maybe we can force the systems into diagnostic mode." Fred suggested, but after trying several ways to do so, they were no better off than before. "This piece of..."
"Uh-uh, there's a lady present, Captain." Douglas frowned at him.
"Oh, sorry, Ma'am." Fred said, bowing his head towards Flashpoint. "Anyway, I don't think there's much we can do at this stage, General. If we can't get this piece of... bovine excrement to co-operate, then the only option we have is to get rid of it."
Douglas nodded. "I have to agree." He said, as Machspeed shut down the laptop and unplugged it. "You said the bay doors aren't responding?"
Fred nodded. "Neither the electric mechanism nor the manual back-ups are responding. We lowered the landing gear without a problem, so the Colonel thinks the doors are manually jammed from the outside."
Douglas nodded. ”Well, we can’t fix that in the air... unless you have somepony who can stand on the underside of our hull while wielding equipment to fix it.” He looked at Machspeed.
Machspeed shook his head as they made their way out of the bomb bay again. “No, we don’t have any changelings that could do that kind-of work.” He said as he began to think. "Okay. We can't just drop these bombs into the ocean. Apart from the fact we can’t get the bay doors open, just teleporting them outside and letting them drop isn’t an option. Apart from the damage to our world that a nuclear explosion would cause, if they don’t all explode, hostile forces could and definitely would retrieve them one day.” Machspeed thought hard, then smiled. “Well, if we can’t drop them down, my suggestion is to get rid of them in the opposite direction: out into space."
Samantha looked at Machspeed with a modicum of scepticism. "And how do you plan to do that?" She asked. "You've got a rocket?"
Machspeed grinned as Flashpoint giggled. "No. But we have been out in space. Flash and I have been aboard the I.S.S., and we flew the shuttle Atlantis back to Earth again."
Samantha's eyes widened out to their ultimate size. "You what?" She asked disbelievingly.
"We've flown the Atlantis." Machspeed confirmed. "She's sitting on the tarmac at Amberley Base, where we landed her. We've made a couple of dozen trips up to the I.S.S. before then, and we're going to be attempting to salvage parts of it in the future. So we can get into space. We've got friends from the I.S.S. working to modify the EVA suits from her and the shuttle for us to wear, so we can undock the various modules and bring them back to Earth for us to salvage."
Samantha was silent for a little bit. "So..."
"So, Flashpoint can wear the one suit we have finished; we tape all the bombs together, with a big oxygen tank for the seventh position, and she can teleport the whole lot up into orbit and set it accelerating away from Earth." Machspeed explained.
"But with one of the other devices set to detonate five hours after Flashpoint shoves them on their way." Douglas added. "That way we know they are 'disposed of' beyond retrieval."
Samantha blinked, her huge eyes wide with surprise. "I... guess that'll work." She said.
"I'll head back, then, and get Yuri and Anton to suit me up, while you lot can tape the bombs together." Flashpoint said. "I'll bring back some duct tape first, though. You're going to need a lot of it."
Fred chuckled. "Never has truer words been spoken." He replied.
Flashpoint looked at the other pilots. "Anypony want a lift back to Brisbane?" She asked.
The other ponies looked to Douglas, who nodded. "Lieutenants, I'm relieving your of your current duty. Head back with Flashpoint and start your new lives amongst friends. They'll help you find your new selves, and even eventually learn to use your wings." He grinned at them as they grinned back. "Captain, I'll need your expertise to get the bombs assembled for transport and to program one of the others for a countdown detonation. Once that's done, you can go back with the others."
"Yes Sir!" The three pegasi saluted Douglas, who returned their salute. Flashpoint had Lieutenants Rossini and Cullen stand either side of her and each put a wing over her back. With a kiss blown to Machspeed, Flashpoint and the two pilots vanished.
Flashpoint arrived with her passengers back at Amberley Airfield. The two lieutenants were looking a little green, but they soon shook themselves and adjusted. "Sorry about that. I forgot newbies to teleporting sometimes get a little nauseous their first time." Flashpoint apologised.
"It's okay." Michelle replied.
"Whoah." Jacob then said "You weren't kidding about Atlantis!” He pointed out to where the shuttle sat.
Michelle’s jaw dropped as she saw Atlantis sitting on part of the tarmac. “I would have had a hard time believing it...”
Flashpoint chuckled. “Well, I didn’t fly it back. I was basically a passenger, and the emergency escape system if the flight went badly wrong.” She explained.
“But you rode in one of the shuttles.” Michelle looked at Flashpoint, the admiration for that feat (and more than a little envy) evident in her voice. “Of all the pilots that qualified for that duty, only a tiny number actually made it on-board one of them.” She sighed sadly. “Neither of us even qualified before they announced the shutdown of the program.” Then she tilted her head to one side. “So... the I.S.S. vanished, like we did, with Atlantis still attached?”
Flashpoint nodded. “That’s right.”
Jacob chuckled as Michelle sighed. “Damn... Ah well, at least we’re still alive... even if we are ponies.” She smiled at Jason.
“At least we can still fly... once we learn how to use these.” Jacob said, flapping his wings now that he had space to do so.
Michelle followed suit, but squealed as she lifted off into the air by nearly a metre, only to drop back down as she stopped moving her wings. “What the...?”
Flashpoint chuckled. “Looks like you’re a natural flyer, Michelle.” She told the pegasus mare. “Only one in about a thousand Returnee pegasi can do that like that the first time they try, and very few get so much air under their wings their first try.”
“Well, shave me down and call me Baldy.” Michelle said as she tried it again, getting a bit of height, even if she wobbled in the air a little. She fluttered back to the ground again and settled her wings on her sides. “I think I’m not going to do that again before getting a few lessons.” She stated.
Flashpoint giggled as Jacob moved to Michelle and nuzzled her tenderly, Michelle responding with delight. “I take it you two are a couple?” Flashpoint asked.
“Well... I was hoping Michelle might be willing to be more than that...” Jacob said as he looked Michelle in her big eyes.
“He’s a good... um, male.” Michelle added as she gazed back at Jacob. “Let’s see what develops. I’m not adverse to you trying, Jacob. It would be nice to have somepony to have next to me as we figure out our place in this new world.”
Jacob nodded. “Okay, then.”
Flashpoint gave them a knowing smile, then said “Come on. I’ll take you to where the others are waiting to head back to Brisbane for their orientation lessons.”
The pair nodded, and walked along with Flashpoint towards the terminal.
Flashpoint arrived back in Auckland and proceeded to Rangi's station. She passed by a field of small antenna dishes that surrounded the station, most of them pointing outwards to the horizon, beside the much bigger cable antennae that were set up towards the top of the rise. "Heya Rangi." She said once she entered the radio room.
"Heya Flashy." Rangi replied, smiling. "How's it going?"
"We're doing okay. These 'devices' make this just a little different from a normal rescue." She explained. "Where are Shelley and the foals?"
"They're up on the Rise. Tarrin Longshanks is teaching the young ones and their mother a few beginning lessons from 'How to be a Pony 101'." He answered with a chuckle.
Flashpoint chuckled back and nodded. "Okay. I'm going to take them back to Amberley, so they can wait on their father/husband returning there." She explained.
"Rojer that, Flash. Take care." Rangi said as Flashpoint left the radio room.
Flashpoint walked up the hill behind Rangi's radio station, underneath the huge cable-antenna array, and then around behind the hill to see Shelley and the foals sitting or hovering there in the near-noonday sun, listening to Tarrin Longshanks teaching them the basics about being a Pony. Flashpoint smiled when she saw that Shelley was listening a lot more intently than the foals, who seemed to have picked up the basic skills a lot quicker than their mother had. "G'day, everypony." Flashpoint said as she reached them.
To her delight, Alicia was the first to reach Flashpoint and deigned to give her a hug that threatened to throttle her. Flashpoint hugged the eight-year-old unicorn filly back, snuggling with her, as Alicia's brother and sister landed next to them and hugged Flashpoint as well. Flashpoint looked at Tarrin and Shelley. "I see you got them started on the two most important things about being a Pony, Tarrin." Flashpoint said with a grin.
"Oh yeah." The Earth Pony stallion replied, a grin on his face as well. "Hugs and Friendship. Nothing more important than that." He specified jokingly. "As well as a few basic lessons for them in their specialities. I might not be a pegasus, but I can teach one how to use their wings and how to look after them... until they enrol in more specialised courses." He gave Shelley a wink.
Shelley grinned back. "I can't wait to attend those classes." She said back.
Flashpoint grinned with them both. "Okay. Shelley, it's time to return to Amberley. Your husband's going to be heading there soon, so I'm taking you back and the foals back there to meet him when he lands."
Shelley nodded and gathered her foals around her. After they'd all said "Bye!" to Tarrin, Flashpoint teleported them all to her landing point at Amberley. As they walked out, they all saw that a new building was being constructed there. "What's that for?" Shelley asked.
"Since we got this runway uncovered, Machy and I felt we could keep Amberley open as the new major runway/terminal for the area." Flashpoint answered. "After all, a runway for heavy aircraft, like this one is, are rarities these days. So we're going to be establishing a proper terminal here from now on." She explained.
"That makes sense." Shelley agreed.
Flashpoint nodded. "Okay, you can use the small lounge in the building there... I won't call it the 'Terminal' yet, because it's really no such thing... and wait for Machy and Doug to return with the Spirit."
"Thanks, Flashpoint." Shelley said, then gave Flashpoint a hug.
Flashpoint returned the hug, saying "Hey, we mares have to stick together, especially those of us who are mothers." She told Shelley. "If you like, when everypony's back together again, would you like to come and stop with us, until they find you a house to settle into? Machy and I would be more than happy to have you stay with us, and so will Starstruck. Any time she gets new playmates is a fantastic day for her." Flashpoint grinned.
Shelley looked embarrassed. "Are you sure we're not going to put you out?" She asked.
"Not at all." Flashpoint replied. "We'd be glad to have you as our guests."
"In that case, we accept." Shelley answered as they headed for the 'terminal' building.
After settling Shelley and her foals in to wait, Flashpoint teleported across to Brisbane, and the house-workshop the two griffon former-cosmonauts had been assigned. "Yuri! Anton! Are you in?" Flashpoint asked in a loud voice.
"In the back!" Came the answer.
Flashpoint trotted around to the shed entrance, to see the pair of griffon males working on one of the spacesuits they'd salvaged from the I.S.S. "Heya guys." She said as she entered.
"Ah! Flashy-point!" Yuri said in his almost-thick russian-accented english. "What brings you to our nest?"
"I need a big favor, guys." Flashpoint asked. "Do you have the prototype spacesuit ready for trials?"
Anton looked out from his section of the workshop. "Funny you should mention that, Flashpoint." He said, his russian accent almost unnoticeable. "Indeed, we have just finished the ground trials with the dummy and the new helmet, and the suit seems to be fully-integral and ready for the next phase of testing." He told Flashpoint. "Do you need it for something?"
Flashpoint nodded. "Yeah, a very sticky and dangerous situation." She answered.
Anton and Yuri could see the seriousness of her statement in her face, and they nodded. "This way, then." Anton led Flashpoint into his work area, Yuri shutting the door behind them. "So what's the problem?"
Flashpoint filled the griffon pair in on the situation with the Spirit bomber, seeing their faces change with the shock of realisation. "So, I need the suit to be able to get the 'package' out to where it can just fly off and detonate harmlessly. Is it ready to go?"
Yuri and Anton looked at each other. "You're going to need more oxygen than the suit can hold as back-up, in case you need to do smaller jumps." Anton said. "Fortunately, some of the back-up cylinders from Atlantis are here amongst our collection of parts, so we can supply you with one of those to use."
"So give us some time to get things ready, maybe fifteen minutes?" Yuri asked.
"If the tank's ready, I can take it out to the Spirit with me, when I take the duct tape out to them." Flashpoint suggested.
"Good idea! Just let us get the proper braided hose to attach to the intake on the suit's backpack, and it will be good to go." Yuri said, grinning.
"To save time, we have a large amount of duct tape here. You can take a load of rolls with you instead of buying them." Anton rummaged around in a pile of boxes, bringing one out. "This is some of the thickest, strongest tape we have found so far. Just bring back what you don't use, please."
Flashpoint nodded. "For sure." She replied as Anton put it before her.
A few minutes later, Yuri brought out the oxygen tank. It was four feet tall and heavily-reinforced. "This is ready." Yuri stated as he put it before Flashpoint. "Just connect it to the backpack's inlet and it will extend your life-support considerably."
Flashpoint was smiling at Yuri's considerable effort at speaking clear English. "Thank you, Yuri." She told him.
" 'Tis nuh-zzing." Yuri replied with a grin, letting his thick russian accent out at the end.
Flashpoint nodded. "We'll get the suit ready for you for when you return." Anton then said as Flashpoint touched the box and the tank.
"I won't be long." Flashpoint replied, then she vanished again.
Yuri sighed. "It muzzt be naice to be hayble to travehl like zat." He said to Anton.
"Yes, and you need to resume your English lessons." Anton poked Yuri in the chest with a claw.
"Meh. Aft-her we get ze suit ready, Brat (Brother)." Yuri said with a smile.
Anton snorted, but the pair headed back to the workshop.
Flashpoint arrived back on the Spirit, tank and box in tow. "Hi, everypony! I have what we need right here." She told them all, seeing Machspeed in the pilot's seat, Samantha beside him, while Douglas and Fred were in the bomb-bay. Fred stuck his head out, to nearly get a box in the face. "Oops! Sorry." Flashpoint said, as she moved the box inside as Fred backed up.
"No problem." Fred replied. He pushed the box to the access catwalks inside the bomb-bay and opened it, revealing the rolls of bright silver reinforced duct-tape.
Flashpoint turned around, moved to Machspeed and nuzzled him lovingly. "How's things here?" She asked.
Machspeed shrugged. "Apart from the advanced electronics and the multi-function displays (MFDs), it's not much different from flying any other aircraft." He answered.
"Apart from the fact we're really flying the computers, and they tell the aircraft what to do." Samantha added.
"Apart from that." Machspeed agreed with a grin.
"We're heading for Amberley, aren't we?" Flashpoint asked.
Machspeed nodded. "We decided to start for Home now, since we're confident that you can get that lot off-world and out of the way." He told Flashpoint. "That way we'll be that much closer to landing once everything's safe."
Flashpoint nodded. "Well, Shelley and the foals are back at Amberley, Douglas, and Yuri and Anton are getting the suit ready. I just have to get back there and suited up, and we can do this."
Douglas and Samantha nodded, grinning, then Machspeed gave Flashpoint one deep kiss. "See you when you get back, Beloved." He said softly.
"See you then." Flashpoint replied, and she stepped back and vanished.
Samantha watched as Machspeed sighed, his head drooped just a little, then he turned about to face forward again, as the sound of duct-tape ripping off rolls came from the bomb-bay. "I'd better get back there and help them." Machspeed told Samantha and unharnessed himself. Samantha watched him go, a small pang of envy touching her heart at that moment. Sighing, she turned back and took over watching the instruments.
After arriving at the griffons' workshop, Flashpoint was happy to see two other ponies there. Both unicorn stallions, she knew both of them. They were some of the most talented unicorns she knew. "Artificier! Spanner!" She said and trotted over to hug the pair.
"Heya Flashpoint!" They both said, giving her hugs. Flashpoint had known the pair of them for a long time. They had been aboard one of the first airliners she and Machspeed had rescued as a co-ordinated team. "We got told you want to give the first of the suits a real test." Spanner said to her.
The pair, although supposedly twins, couldn't have looked more different if they'd tried hard. Artificer was of a thin build, while Spanner was more like an earth pony in his body-shape and musculature. They both had long horns, and while Artificier had a mane and tail that could do Vinyl Scratch proud, Spanner's mane and tail were both short. Artificier was a sky-blue, his mane and tail dark-blue and streaked with dark red, while Spanner's body was a muddy grey, his mane and tail a greasy black. The most interesting thing was they both had deep green eyes that swirled like crystal, with the most intelligent gaze Flashpoint had ever seen.
Flashpoint nodded. "I have a very dangerous cargo that has to be launched out into space. So Machy figured the suit would be necessary to let me get as far as I can before letting it go." She explained.
The unicorns nodded. "Well, we've gotten the backpack and the new helmet finished, ready to fit in place, so I guess it's only fitting you get the first suit." Artificier said.
"Ho-kay! Over here, Flashy!" Yuri said, and the three ponies joined the two griffons. Flashpoint saw the rebuilt spacesuit sitting before her, spread out on a table.
"First, we need to get you into the undersuit." Anton said, as Yuri began to braid Flashpoint's mane and tail for her. "It's been designed to keep your body temperature as even throughout your body as we can possibly make it." He told her.
The soft, silky material felt like liquid silk to Flashpoint as they had her step into it and slid it carefully up her body. It slid over her fur, hardly disturbing the way her pelt lay over her skin, even to the pockets for her ears with connections for the headphones and the essential connections for bodily functions under her tail. As it took in her body-warmth, it contracted around her and became like a second skin. "This stuff is amazing." Flashpoint commented.
Spanner chuckled as Artificier smiled proudly. "My baby brother's managed to come up with some great stuff while we were researching how to remake the suits." He commented.
"Yes, it was a challenge, but I have made some very interesting breakthroughs." Artificier admitted.
"Certainly feels like it." Flashpoint said, as the griffon brothers laid the body of the suit out for Flashpoint to step into it's confines. She placed her hoofs down into the boot-area on all four legs, and the griffons pulled the suit up around her, making sure everything went where it was supposed-to, including the lead for her headphones. Once Flashpoint had slid her head through the mounting-ring for the helmet, they did the back of the suit up, sealing it securely and made it airtight. The air-lines into the suit were under the backpack, where they would be safe from being trapped or damaged, and soon Flashpoint was standing, sealed into the suit, save for the helmet. Artificier took the new helmet from the case it was in. It was a lot bigger in diameter than the ones made for the human astronauts for whom the suits had originally made for. Yuri and Anton carefully fitted it over Flashpoint's head, making sure her horn was safe and not touching the internal lining. "Well, that fits okay." Flashpoint commented as she moved her head around.
The griffon brothers let Flashpoint walk around for a short time, to settle the bulky suit and to help Flashpoint get used to it. Then Artificier took out an amulet from his side-bags. "This will help you a lot, Flash." He told Flashpoint. "It will create a shield around you while you're exposed to the solar wind that should keep any radiation from reaching you."
Yuri took the amulet and slipped it inside the helmet, letting it settle against Flashpoint's upper-chest. "Thanks, Art." Flashpoint told Artificier.
Artificier and Spanner smiled as they helped with the final checks. They explained the small control panel on her right fore-leg, and had her practise with it for a few moments, until Flashpoint could read it and use it properly. They then sealed the helmet and checked out the suit's air-integrity. The small time the suit was over-inflated around her was uncomfortable, but it proved the suit was air-tight and space-worthy with Flashpoint inside it. After deflating it and opening her visor again, Flashpoint looked at the four-some. "So, I'm ready?" She asked.
"Just a few more things." Anton said. "We have one of the little umbrella-like folding radio antennas for you to use, if you need to." He slid it's folded form into a carrier pouch along the side of the suit's backpack.
"And I have more mana-beacons for you." Artificier added as he tucked two of them in little pockets on her upper fore-legs. "Can never be too careful."
"I totally agree." Flashpoint replied.
After a few more checks, Yuri and Anton sat back and nodded. "Pravil'no! (Right!) I cannot see anything we've missed. Do you feel confident enough to go now?" Anton asked Flashpoint.
"With you guys behind this rebuild, you bet I do!" Flashpoint answered confidently. "When I get back, I'll land on the roof, and you can lift me down from there." She told them.
"Of course." Anton and Yuri said together, then chuckled. "With the help of our good friends here, we shall head over to Rangi's and await word of your exploits."
Flashpoint looked at Artificier. She knew Spanner could reach Auckland, but Artificier had previously had trouble doing so. "Can you make it that far this time?" She asked him.
"I have been practising." Artificier declared. "While the art of teleporting is not my forte, I can make it that far... with a good hour's rest before attempting to return, of course."
Flashpoint smiled. It was good having the pair as back-up in case she needed to transport more than her normal amount of people. "Okay then. See you later." And, charging up her horn, Flashpoint vanished.
Yuri grinned at Anton, then said "Ho-kay, my friends. Let us head for Rangi's." He declared and, teaming up with one of the brothers, the four of them vanished not too long after Flashpoint left.
As the Spirit bomber headed for Australia, Flashpoint appeared inside the cockpit, encased in her modified spacesuit. Douglas and Samantha blinked in surprise, then looked her over. "So... this came from the Atlantis?" Samantha asked.
"That's right." Flashpoint said as she moved to the bomb-bay. "Yuri and Anton from the I.S.S. are suit-technicians, amongst their other skills, so they were able to modify the suits to suit our body-pattern." She explained. "Apart from the nine suits from Atlantis, we have the ones from the I.S.S. as well, so eventually we could have twenty-five spacesuits... with Anton and Yuri claiming two of them, that means twenty-three suits for Ponies to wear." Flashpoint grinned.
Douglas nodded. "Okay. Mach and I have everything ready for you, Flashpoint." He said, leading her back to the bomb-bay. Once they were back in the bomb-bay, Flashpoint saw that they'd liberally duct-taped the six bombs together, her oxygen tank on top of the assembly. "Now, this is the first active device; don't worry about it. The one you need to know about is this one." Douglas showed Flashpoint the device on the other side of the oxygen tank. "We've got this one on a manual countdown. Once you're travelling at speed, flip the cover of this button open and press it. The timer will begin a five-hour countdown from that point. Then you use your magic or a knife to cut the duct-tape holding the tank in place and let them go."
"Got it." Flashpoint said as she levitated herself up onto the top of the assembly. "Okay, I have them." Flashpoint said as she gripped the assembly of bombs and tank in her hoofs and field.
"Rojer that, Flash." Machspeed said to her as he plugged the braided line from the tank into the backpack of her suit. "You're connected and ready to go."
"Prepare for lift-off!" Flashpoint said cheekily as she prepared to lift the load in her magic, closed the helmet's visor and sealed it, then readied for the teleport. She held the assembly aloft with Machspeed's help, as he removed the cables and shackles holding the assembly in place. Once she was floating free, Flashpoint locked onto her jump-point reference, using the mana beacon on the I.S.S. as a height reference. Once she had that, she said "See you later!" and vanished, along with the assembly.
"Holy..." Was all Samantha said, as the Spirit continued towards the Australian mainland.
Flashpoint arrived in orbit after counting three. "Whoo! That was almost too much of a jump." She said to herself, as she rested for a few minutes. She maneuvered herself around to feel the Earth at her back, then she checked the panel on the timed device. She saw it was still awaiting the final press to start the timer. "So, teleporting doesn't affect the mechanism... must have been the trip through time." She surmised as she looked at the other active device, who's systems were still stable. She waited, her velocity mostly constant as she drifted out-bound away from the Earth. "Okay... Now, to teleport for speed, not distance." Flashpoint said to herself, concentrating on a different type of teleport.
Flashpoint teleported, heading outbound and conserving her mana even as she doubled her velocity every five minutes with each teleport. She'd started heading out-bound at the same speed the I.S.S. was travelling around the Earth, about twenty-eight thousand miles-per-hour (MPH), she estimated, so, after her fifth teleport, she was doing five hundred and twelve thousand MPH. Flashpoint giggled. "Never has a pony travelled so fast." She said to herself.
As she stabilised herself, Flashpoint pressed the activation button on the timer, cut the duct-tape holding her oxygen tank to the bomb assembly, then gave the assembly a little kick at the right spot and set it loose. She stabilised herself and the tank she was carrying as the bombs seemed to slowly move away from her, then she started braking. The bomb assembly vanished almost in an instant as she dropped half her speed, then she was alone as she came to a halt, relative to the Earth behind her. Flashpoint then noticed the field around her was glowing slightly, the magic shield the pendant she wore under her space-suit was generating was lit-up with radiation from the Sun's solar wind, keeping it from reaching her. She was so glad that Artificier had perfected these pendants, and now she had proof that they worked. As she sat there, she realised there was a light coming from one side of her. She slowly rotated herself around towards it... and she gasped in amazement at what she saw.
The Moon was sitting right next to her, to the point where she couldn't see all of it's surface in her helmet's visor. "How the hell did I miss that?" She said to herself. Had she really teleported out that far? She rolled herself around more, and saw the small sphere of the Earth behind her. "By the gods..." The sight took her breath away. Flashpoint then returned her gaze to the Moon, and an idea came over her... a silly, insane idea, but one she might never thought of if she hadn't been right there. She gathered her magic to her, then teleported again, hoping her recollection of the stories Machspeed had told her was true. Putting herself between the Earth and the Moon, she arrived above one of the vast lava plains that ancient Human astronomers had called 'seas', and she slowly lowered herself further down, until she felt the gravity of the Moon catch her. Looking about, she felt for and found the feel of processed metals, ever so tiny but findable, on the surface, and she teleported as close to them as she dared. Her ability to detect and pinpoint groups of processed metals was one of the things that allowed her to find aircraft in the sky and teleport to them so easily. As she fell to the surface, Flashpoint pushed the Moon away with her kinetic power to softly land on the surface, only a hundred metres from the base of an ancient space vehicle.
Resting from her efforts, she could feel the Lunar mana flowing about her. The Earth's satellite had also been bathed in the gargantuan wash of magic from the galactic core, and Flashpoint soaked it up eagerly. She looked up at the Earth above her, and a feeling of profound wonder filled her. "So small..." She said and, stepping off her oxygen tank, she sat and raised a fore-hoof, it covering her home planet easily at this distance. She sat there for a time, the wonder of her situation filling her mind. 'Is this how Luna saw Equis, all the time she was on their moon? Did she sit and wonder of the fragility of it all?' Shaking her head, Flashpoint knew she needed to make contact with home. Carefully rummaging around in the pockets at the side of her backpack, she pulled out the collapsed dish antenna stored there and set it up. It opened out like an umbrella and Flashpoint aimed it as best she could, at least getting the Earth right in her sights. Connecting it to her transmitter, Flashpoint added a boost to the signal using her magic and was about to call, when another idea made her grin. She activated the transmitter and said...
Machspeed was getting a feel for the way the Spirit bomber flew, Samantha in the co-pilot's seat beside him. "You're pretty good at doing that." She commented.
"Thanks." Machspeed said off-handedly.
Douglas could see the distraction Machspeed was feeling. He knew what was behind it, too. "She'll be all right, Son. Your mare is strong and capable."
Machspeed let go a sigh. "I know... but she's out there, all alone without me. I can't help but worry."
"That's only natural, Mach. Just trust in her." Douglas counselled him. "She'll call in once the job is done."
Machspeed just nodded and went back to flying.
Rangi was listening intently, along with the rest of the A.R.R.R.S. team, as they awaited a transmission from Flashpoint. It had not been nearly an hour since she had teleported the nuclear devices away from the Spirit, and everypony was so tense. "I'm getting something..." Rangi said, as every person in the room fell silent. Rangi turned up the gain as he tried to hear a signal. "Flashpoint, this is Auckland Control. Can you hear me? Over." Rangi said. While normally all the little antennas would be focussed to try and catch signals from all around the facility, the big antenna complex outside was now pointed almost at the Moon, where Flashpoint supposedly was. Rangi repeated himself three more times, waiting patiently between them as everyone else held their collective breath.
Then the speakers crackled to life. "Auckland Control, this is Tranquillity Base. The Pony has landed." Flashpoint's excited voice replied. "That's one small step for a Pony, one giant leap for Ponykind."
Scarcely believing what they'd heard, all those there erupted in cheers. Rangi had to hush them down. "Flash, where are you? Over."
"I'm on the Moon!" Flashpoint's voice said again. "I'm standing about three hundred yards from Apollo Eleven's landing spot! I can see the base of the lander clearly from here. Over."
"The Moon? Why the hell did you go there? Over." Rangi asked.
"After letting go of the package and slowing down, I found I was right beside the Moon. I needed to rest and recharge, so I picked a point to land and dropped down to the surface." Flashpoint explained. "After the tales Machy told me, I figured if the astronauts could contact Earth from here, then I should be able to as well. Over." She reasoned.
Rangi chuckled as everyone else whispered raucously to each other. "Well, thanks for calling Home, you got us all breathing again. Over." He replied.
There was a giggle over the speakers, and Flashpoint then said "Glad to hear that, over."
Then Anton stepped forward and gestured for the stand-alone mike. Rangi handed it to him. "Flashpoint, how is the suit holding up? Over." He asked.
"It's doing fine, Anton." Flashpoint replied. "Integrity is a hundred percent, I've got three-quarters of the big tank still left, and the suit's rad-counter isn't even ticking over, thanks to the shield. Over."
"Good to know." Anton replied. "We can start modifying the other suits, then. That should make things a lot more exciting in the future. Over."
"It certainly will! Over." Flashpoint replied.
"What are your plans now, Flash? Over." Arclight then asked, taking the mike from Anton.
"I'm going to rest here for about an hour and build up my mana reserves." Flashpoint replied. "The big battery pack's only down a eighth of its capacity, and I can spare the time to recharge my mana. Once I'm at full strength again, I'll 'port back down to Brisbane and get out of the suit, then I'll go back to Amberley and wait on Machy arriving with Doug and the Spirit. Over."
Arclight chuckled. "Sounds like a plan. We'll be back waiting for you."
Then Yuri butted in "Indeed! We shall await your arrival with sardined breathings!"
"What?!?" Flashpoint asked, as Anton and a lot of the others chuckled.
"He means 'with baited breath'." Anton explained. "See you in Brisbane, Flashpoint. Over." Anton signed off.
"See you, Anton, Yuri!" Flashpoint replied, even as her signal started to get weaker. The two griffons and their friends walked out of the radio shack, then vanished a few minutes later.
"Looks like we're about to lose you, Flash. You'll be back on the ground long before you come back into range again, so stay cool, you astro-pony, you. Over." Rangi said
"You got it, Rangi." Flashpoint said, her voice getting softer and more staticky. "Tranquillity Base, ou...." And she faded entirely.
Rangi chuckled. "Who'd have thought?" He asked softly. "I would have sworn Machspeed would have been first Pony on the Moon, not Flashpoint." He shook his head. "Ah well. Time to tell Mach his wife made it a lot farther than he ever thought."
Machspeed was sitting in the pilot's seat of the Spirit as they passed the hour-out point on their ETA to Amberley. His face was relaxed as he flew along, but even Samantha could see the signs of his worry, under the stoic face he wore. "So, you two been together long?" She asked.
Machspeed looked at Samantha, then chuckled. "Yeah. Twelve years now." He sighed. "Flashy is what makes A.R.R.R.S. possible. Her pinpoint accuracy with her teleporting means we can get into places like this bomber's cockpit from anywhere on Earth without trouble, which makes getting into airliners even easier." Machspeed checked over the MFDs before him again, then relaxed a little. "I have no idea why she agreed to marry me, she just made me the luckiest stallion on this silly planet we dwell on when she popped the question." He told Samantha.
"Any kids? I mean, foals?" Samantha asked.
"We have a daughter. She's a ten-year-old unicorn filly, as you can guess. We named her Starstruck, after the star-shaped blaze below her cute little horn." Machspeed proudly answered Samantha.
Samantha smiled. "That's so wonderful." She said. "So, how long have you been in the Air Force?"
Machspeed chuckled. "You want the truth?" He asked.
Samantha looked confused. "Uh, I guess." She replied.
Machspeed chuckled. "I served for a full term in the R.A.A.F., then flew commercial for a while. Since getting here, I have flown everything from light aircraft to a C-5 Galaxy... ironically, just before your Spirit here. And, of course, Atlantis." He sighed. "Never thought I'd ever get to fly one of these, though."
Samantha nodded. "Yeah, they're something, all right." She agreed.
Machspeed nodded. "To answer your question honestly, Doug inducted me into the U.S.A.F. this morning." Machspeed answered Samantha. "He thought it would make you accept me a little more easily than if I showed up in my A.R.R.R.S. gear."
Samantha looked shocked, then nodded thoughtfully. "Well, he is a general. He can induct others and make them whatever rank he wants to, I guess." She said acceptingly. "But you do have air force experience, and a lot of flight experience..." She sighed longingly. "And you flew Atlantis. God above, I would give my tail and mane to have been able to do that." She told Machspeed, who grinned smugly.
"Yeah. Never thought I'd do anything like that. Biggest aircraft I'd flown before getting here was a 747. Now I have the A380 Airbus and the C-5M Galaxy to add to my resume." He told her. "Maybe you might like to join A.R.R.R.S. when we land and you get used to your new body." Machspeed suggested.
Samantha chuckled. "I'll keep it in mind." She replied.
Then the radio picked up Rangi. "This is Auckland Control to Pegasus. Are you receiving? Over."
Samantha looked at Machspeed, who gestured to the radio. Samantha slid her helmet back on... somewhat uncomfortably, since it didn't quite fit her any longer, but she replied "This is Pegasus to Auckland Control. We receive you five-by-five. Over."
"Good to hear you, Pegasus. You got your ears on, Mach? Over." Rangi asked Machspeed, who was sliding another helmet on.
"I got you, Rangi. What's the news? Over." Machspeed asked.
"Just heard back from Flashpoint. Operation Stardrop was a success, the package has been dropped off... but she's not back just yet. Over."
Machspeed was surprised. "She's not? Where is she, if I have to ask? Over."
Rangi chuckled. "Would you believe she's on the Moon, right now?" Rangi asked back.
Samantha's jaw dropped. "She's WHERE?" She almost demanded.
Machspeed's jaw dropped as well, but he recovered with a laugh and replied "THAT'S my mare!" He said, a lot of pride leaking into his voice. "What is she doing there, of all places? Over."
Rangi was chuckling himself. "Apparently when she let the package go, she came to a halt right next to the Moon. She took advantage of it to land next to the Apollo Eleven site and recharge her mana. Over." Rangi explained.
Machspeed grinned, as Samantha shook her head slowly. "Is there nothing you lot won't attempt?" She asked.
"This is our world now, Sam." Machspeed replied. "We get to do everything all over again. We've got Magic now as a huge advantage, but there's still things that need the technology we rescue to make happen." Machspeed sighed and he leaned back in the ejector seat. "I wonder if anypony else knows what just happened... or will we be the only ones on Earth to know, maybe for years?" He chuckled and shook his head. "It's not like the entire world could watch, not like when Neil Armstrong stepped there. Okay, Rangi, we're still an hour out from Amberley. We'll see everypony when we get back there. Pegasus out."
"Rojer that, Pegasus. Auckland Out." And the radio fell silent.
Flashpoint knew she had to go back, and soon. So many would be worried about her, her Machy more than most. But she took a few moments longer to look over the Apollo Eleven site beside her, and at what she'd made before her. She'd made something to make sure others found out she had been there. Out of lunar rock and dust, she had made raised letters on the surface. They read:
FLASHPOiNT WAS HERE
First Pony on the Moon
15th March 5253CE
Flashpoint grinned as she took a mana beacon out of one pocket on the suit and placed it on the dot of the 'i' in her name. Now she could find her way back here without fail. She couldn't feel the cold of the lunar surface through her suit, but she was sure the tank she had with her might suffer nasty effects if she brought it home with her. Once she was sure the on-board tank in her suit backpack was full, Flashpoint shut the regulator valve off and disconnected the hose from her backpack. She knew the oxygen gas in the tank would probably liquify over time, but better than having the metal in the tank possibly explode after cooling down on the lunar surface, then expand as it was instantly brought back into normal daytime temperatures at Brisbane. She'd bring a thermal sleeve next time to warm it up before she brought it back again.
Flashpoint stepped away from the tank and her little memorial, then turned to look up at the Earth again. Smiling to herself, she closed her eyes, imaging the Earth much closer to her, as she'd seen it from the I.S.S., and she vanished. Flashpoint appeared right next to Station Alpha and gently touched down on the observation module, then she opened her eyes to look down on her home planet from orbit once again. In her heart, she knew she'd never take it for granted ever again. One more teleport, and she was standing on the roof of Yuri and Anton's workshop in Brisbane.
"Flashy-point!" Sounded in her headphones, startling Flashpoint. She looked about, to see Yuri and Anton coming down to land beside her. "Welcome back, little astro-pony!"
Flashpoint laughed as she opened her helmet's visor and looked at the pair. "Great to be back, boys."
"Okay, let's get you downstairs and out of that suit." Anton told her, and he and Yuri grabbed hold of some of the tether-points on the suit and lifted Flashpoint off the roof, carrying her over the edge and setting her down right outside their workshop door. Flashpoint walked a little awkwardly into the workshop and, as she stood on the small platform again, the griffons hooked her up to a portable airconditioning unit as they checked the suit over. "You got the hoof-boots a bit dirty." Anton exclaimed.
"Da, but it is genuine moon-dust, Brat. A worthy christening for our prototype." Yuri countered.
Anton chuckled as Yuri put a chilled water container where Flashpoint could sip at the straw. "Yes, I would agree, Brat." He replied. "One of our suits was the first to walk on the Moon in over thirty-two hundred years." Anton sat back and sighed happily. "Moy Bog (My God), I never even dreamed that I would ever say that." He chuckled, as Yuri laughed and Flashpoint giggled. "When you get out of that suit, Flash, be prepared for the biggest pair of hugs you might ever get!"
"Looking forward to it, Anton." Flashpoint stated, grinning as the pair of griffons started removing the backpack unit. It was close to fifteen minutes later that the pair lowered the suit to the platform and lifted Flashpoint out of it. Once she was out of the main suit, Anton proceeded to help Flashpoint out of the undersuit, as Yuri picked up the main suit and moved it to where it would be cleaned and serviced before being readied to be used again.
Once out of the undersuit, Flashpoint shook herself out, her braided mane and tail flying everywhere. "Oh! It was a marvel to be inside, but it's also so good to have it off." She told Anton.
Anton nodded. "Ponies and Griffons are not designed to wear clothing... much." He agreed. "Having said that, how did it feel over your occupancy? Any issues on fit or comfort we need to address?"
"It felt good, for the amount of time I was in it." Flashpoint answered. "I think I'd need a few more hours inside to really find any issues with chafing or other such things. But that undersuit Artificier made was incredible. I barely felt it there under the big suit, and I think I could wear that all day."
Anton nodded. "Good, good." He said back to Flashpoint. "We shall label this one as yours, then." As Yuri returned, Anton gave Flashpoint a huge grin for a griffon. "And now, we have the most enjoyable part of this occasion to enact." He told Flashpoint.
"Oh? What's that?" Flashpoint asked.
"What we promised." Yuri told Flashpoint, and both griffons gave her the hugest hugs they could.
Flashpoint almost purred as she was snuggled between four strong arms and four huge wings. It certainly was one of the best hugs she had ever received. "Thanks, you two cossacks." She said, using a pet nickname the pair had been given by their new friends.
The russian brothers chuckled as they finally let go of Flashpoint. "It was our pleasure." Anton replied.
"And next time you wish to go up, let us know. We shall have your suit ready for you, Flashy-point, post-haste!" Yuri grinned at Flashpoint. "Maybe we have our suits ready then, too, and we will join you back on the I.S.S. with your Machy-speed."
Flashpoint giggled at Yuri's mangling of their names. "You're on." She agreed. "See you two around." And as she concentrated, her horn lit up and she vanished again.
The brothers high-fived each other, then headed back to work. Now that they knew they could produce suits that worked properly, they had more to make for their friends...
Something had been worrying Machspeed as he sat beside Samantha. Douglas had crashed on one of the bunks behind the flight deck as Machspeed and Samantha went over the landing procedure as they flew north of New Zealand. It finally crystallised as Machspeed saw the Australian shore appear. "Colonel... you said the device that was active was set to go off at zero altitude, am I correct?" He asked Samantha.
Samantha looked over at Machspeed from where she'd been going over the landing checklist. "That's right." She confirmed.
Machspeed frowned. "So, if that's the case... why did you keep asking for landing instructions?" He asked. "You knew that thing would detonate on landing... so why were you so insistent on doing so?"
Samantha looked away for a few seconds, taking a deep breath. "I can see where this is leading... and no, we weren't going to actually try to land, Mach."
Machspeed thought about that, then said "Go on, Sam."
Samantha sighed. "We all knew the danger of what we were carrying. I was going to bring us over Amberley at about three thousand feet... and we all would have bailed." She explained. "I was going to set the autopilot to take the Spirit out as far as it could from Australia until it ran out of fuel. We'd worked out it could get at least another two hours' flying time after we bailed out, so the detonation wouldn't have happened close to the shore."
Machspeed nodded, his frown disappearing. "And you were all ready to just try and drift down?" He asked.
"Well, we all had wings, so we figured that, if nothing else, we could have tried gliding." Samantha explained to Machspeed. "If worse came to worse, we could have simply got our 'chutes on and jumped. But all of us have experience with hang gliders, so we felt we could glide down pretty successfully... if not actually fly." Then she smiled. "And there was always the chance, after you called, that we could have had other pegasi there to help us get down."
Machspeed smiled at that. "Yeah, well... you would have stood a better chance of that there, that's for sure." He agreed. "And I apologise for being suspicious." He added.
Samantha nodded, smiling. "That's okay. I understand that it sounded a bit suss to you. I'm only surprised it took you this long to work it out." She grinned.
"Hey, I've been... worried about other things, and other people." Machspeed reminded Samantha.
Samantha sighed. "Too true, too true." She acknowledged. Then a part of the navigation system lit up. "Hey, we've got an I.L.S. beacon." Samantha said to Machspeed.
"Really?" Machspeed asked, checking on the final point. "It's... coming from roughly where Amberley is." He said.
"Or maybe it is Amberley." Samantha suggested.
Machspeed got his helmet on again. "Amberley Control, this is Pegasus, do you copy? Over." He called ahead.
"Pegasus, this is Amberley Control. We are reading you five-by-five. We can see you on our radar at thirty kilometres out and headed in-bound. Land at your discretion, over."
"Amberley Control, this is Pegasus. You have Radar now, as well as I.L.S.? Over." Machspeed asked.
The voice that replied was cheery and up-beat. "Pegasus, this is Amberley Control. We sure do. The technicians from the Galaxy have set up the portable equipment they had on-board so we can use it." The controller replied. "It'll make things a lot easier from now on, at least until we can get permanent equipment. Over."
Machspeed chuckled. "Pegasus to Amberley Control. Glad to hear it, Amberley. We're five minutes out and heading down now. See you on the ground. Pegasus, out." And he grinned at Samantha.
Samantha grinned back and started running through the landing checklist with Machspeed.
Flashpoint could almost feel Machspeed as the Spirit bomber approached. "They're almost here!" She told Shelley, and the two mares and four foals headed out to the 'observation area', which was a roped-off section of tarmac beside the shed that served as the 'terminal'. They were joined moments later by Yuri, Anton, Artificier and Spanner, as well as the other members of A.R.R.R.S., who arrived in a bus from Brisbane. They'd just made it to the observation area, as the black speck of the Spirit slowly defined itself into its unmistakeable boomerang shape. It seemed to drift down as lightly as a feather, until it touched down and raced past the group, engines in full-reverse mode, to cheers from everyone there...
"Okay, flaps set at five degrees, gear down." Samantha said as they came below a thousand feet up.
"Rojer. Flaps set, five degrees; gear down, aye." Machspeed replied.
Samantha nodded. "Landing speed is eighty knots indicated." She read out to Machspeed.
"Rojer that, eighty knots indicated, aye." Machspeed replied. "Slowing to one-forty knots at five hundred feet... one-hundred knots at two hundred feet..." He gently pulled back on the stick beside him to raise the nose a little, and the main gear touched down perfectly.
As the nose wheel touched down, Samantha said "Engines to full reverse; extend airbrakes."
"Engines to full reverse, airbrakes extended, aye." Machspeed repeated as the throttles pulled down and into full reverse thrust. The big bomber slowed rapidly with the brakes helping, until they were at twenty knots.
"Engines to five percent." Samantha said.
"Engines to five percent." Machspeed slid the throttles back above idle, and the Spirit gently rolled off the main runway, to eventually park behind the Galaxy. Once there, Machspeed pulled the throttles back to idle and Samantha started the shutdown checklist. One pegasus pony slid chocks under the main wheels, then raced out to give Machspeed the 'secure' sign. "Main wheels secure, engines off." He said to Samantha, and the whine of the turbines died away.
"And we're down." Samantha said, with a relieved sigh as they finished the checklist.
Just then, there was a snort from behind them, and a loud yawn. "What? Are we down already?" Came Douglas' voice from the bunks.
Machspeed and Samantha looked back at the sleepy pegasus, then at each other, and they burst out laughing together.
Everyone on Amberley Airfield was there, cheering from in front of the Spirit, as the main hatch lowered and first Douglas, then Samantha, were floated down to the ground. They moved aside to let Machspeed lower himself to the tarmac, then the trio of Ponies walked out, to the adulation of the crowd. Machspeed found himself hugged by Flashpoint, Starstruck and Amelia, as Douglas was hugged by his family and Samantha by her three colleagues. The rest of A.R.R.R.S. had their turn at hugging Machspeed as well as the ponies moved out to where they could be mobbed by those waiting. They were joined by the cheers from the other Air Force and Army ponies, as they surrounded and welcomed those who had saved them before home again, and those that had waited for them.
Machspeed shut the hatch of the almost-unearthly bomber aircraft before they left her sitting there. Her job may have been aborted by History and Circumstance, but even Samantha felt that, just this once, that intervention was definitely better than what might have happened if they'd suceeded in their mission.
Samantha looked about, seeing Atlantis sitting there, and a small twinge of longing went through her as one of her dreams touched her again. Waiting as the rest of the group moved away, she diverted from their path and trotted over towards the Space Shuttle. As she slowed and walked under it's bulk, she moved to the nose gear and, hesitantly, extended a forehoof and touched the center of the wheel she was facing. Her eyes travelled up the gear's leg, until her gaze fell on the tiles of the nose. Tears started to flow from her eyes as she moved forward to touch her head to the rough rubber of the nose wheel, resting the bridge of her muzzle against it.
Samantha didn't know how long she was standing there, until a wing gently rested itself on her back, then a warm body pressed against her side. She opened her eyes to see a caring face looking at her, a face that she'd seen only for a few hours, yet she knew so well the person behind it. He leaned in and gently nuzzled her, tenderly licking her tears away, which made Samantha giggle slightly.
"So close... yet still too late." He said softly to her.
"Yeah." Samantha could only agree. She moved back, moving out from under the wing on her back until she faced the one that came after her. He pressed his head to hers and sighed softly. "Thanks for coming after me. I know that, at least, you understand." She told him.
Fred smiled and moved his head to rub alongside Samantha's as they moved closer. "More than you know." He replied.
"Oh?" Samantha asked as she turned to look at him.
Fred nodded. "It's strange, how Fate plays with us." He told Samantha. "I never told anyone this, but you know that period when I disappeared from the base?"
Sam nodded. "I remember. Everyone was wondering where you went to."
"I had to report for Astronaut training." Fred revealed.
Samantha's eyes went as wide as they could. "You?" She asked incredulously.
Fred nodded, his eyes steady. "Yep. I went through the whole she-bang. I got named as one of the eight preliminary pilots for Atlantis' last mission... until they named the squad. I missed out on flying her, then I got back to the Base and found myself assigned back to you, and this mission." He told Samantha as they both unconsciously did a walk-around Atlantis. "I don't know if this was compensation for missing out on flying her, being assigned to fly the Spirit." He chuckled. "Flying the B-2 is... was almost as elite an assignment as flying the Space Shuttle.
"Almost." Samantha agreed. "So, why didn't you say anything?" She asked.
"It was too close." Fred answered. "I was still a bit disappointed about missing out... but then, who knows? I might have missed out on being back here with you." He reached out his neck and nuzzled Samantha tenderly, making her nicker.
Samantha smiled at Fred as they walked on. "Does that mean...?" She asked him.
Fred chuckled, a big grin on his face. "They say romance between air crew members is a fallacy... but after knowing you as long as I have... I don't think I could find anyone... anypony whom I'd rather start up a relationship with." He admitted. "You do know Jacob and Michelle were already involved, don't you?"
Samantha laughed. "I don't think there was anyone on our old digs that didn't know Jacob was chasing Michelle." She answered. "You want to chase me, then?" She asked.
"More than that." Fred said back. He got down on one fore-leg before Samantha and took her fore-hoof. "I swear to you, dearest lady, that I will pursue you through fair weather and foul, through the sky and along the ground, until you let me make you the happiest mare on this new world we dwell in."
Samantha was a bit taken aback by the force in Fred's voice... but then she smiled and leaned forward to kiss him softly. Fred got to his hoofs as the kiss progressed, then she nuzzled him lovingly. "I don't know if you're the one for me, Fred Kellman... but I give you permission to woo me, until you catch me, or somepony else does." Samantha told Fred. "But... don't just focus on me. Don't be so enamoured that, if the one truly for you catches your eye, you give her up for pursuing me hopelessly." She requested.
Fred softly kissed Samantha's forehead. "I promise you, I will keep my heart open, until you give me yours." He replied.
Samantha moved to hug Fred with her wings, as he did the same. "Then yes. Let's see if we're the ones for each other." She agreed.
Then a bus pulled up alongside them. Michelle and Jacob were leaning out the window and yelled "Come on, you two! We're heading back to Brisbane!"
Samantha looked at Fred with a big grin and he grinned back, then they trotted over to the opening doors of the bus and climbed in. Finding themselves seated behind Jacob and Michelle and surrounded by other Air Force ponies, the foursome chatted on as they drove away from the last part of their old lives, towards the new world they'd been thrusted into. Part of them tried to remind them of what they were leaving behind... but the majority of their minds just decided to roll with things and start all over.
After all, it was the most sensible thing to do...
Machspeed, Flashpoint and the members of A.R.R.R.S. were gathered around the Makelands as the group made arrangements to meet back at their headquarters on the following day. "Don't be late!" Amelia told them as she stood by Sunbeam.
"No worries! You know that we're hardly ever late." Flashpoint said as she moved to stand with Machspeed and the Makelands.
"Just don't sleep in!" Arclight added.
Flashpoint poked her tongue out at them, which broke everypony up. Then Machspeed, Douglas, Shelley and the four foals all gathered around Flashpoint, and in an instant, they were gone, heading to their now-shared home on what used to be the Noosa coast. Arriving in the back yard, the three Makeland foals all followed Starstruck inside, to be shown to their rooms. As Flashpoint and Shelley made for the interior after them, Machspeed showed Douglas around the outside of the home. "So, do you have any plans yet, General?" Machspeed asked.
Douglas chuckled. "Hey, not so heavy on the 'General' rank any more, Mach." He replied. "I don't know if the rank still has any meaning today."
"Well, you could always form a defense force here in Brisbane." Machspeed suggested. "You're younger than I am in many ways, now. You have a lot of time at your disposal."
Douglas took a deep breath of the perfectly clean air, then exhaled slowly. "I guess that's true." He admitted. "I was talking to some of the Galaxy flight crew and the technicians. They don't want to give up the aircraft just yet. They seem to think they could keep it flying, and since a lot of them were trained to service her, I suppose they could manage to do that for a time. And a great many of them are unicorns, too, plus a few griffons. Once they get their magic sorted, I bet they could keep the big girl flying."
"As long as they have the fuel, I guess they could." Machspeed hesitantly agreed. "But there's quite a few bills that would need to be paid for them to keep the Galaxy for themselves." Machspeed reminded Douglas.
Douglas nodded. "They plan to pay with some of the equipment, such as the portable radar and I.L.S. equipment that are now deployed at Amberley." He told Machspeed. "I'm sure Brisbane would like to have a few Abrams tanks for defense as well."
Machspeed chuckled. "Yeah, considering the problems that Charybdis and its minions have caused in the past. A couple of tanks wouldn't go astray, I imagine."
Douglas smiled and nodded. "So, let the crew sell off some of their assets, and you'll all get paid eventually." He said as they headed back to the rear verandah. "And that big lady is going to be far more useful than any airliner in this day and age. Her lifting and cargo-handling capacity is something that's going to be probably irreplaceable, since there's nothing like her in the air today. That means she's capable of making a lot of money from charters and other services."
"Very true." Machspeed had to agree. "I just hope they can work something out. It would be good to see the Galaxy flying still, instead of being dismantled, I have to admit."
"Then, maybe you and A.R.R.R.S. can help us keep our dream going as well, and you might find us of great aid to you in doing what you do as well." Douglas suggested as they walked up the broad stairs.
"Hopefully you're right, Doug, hopefully you're right." Machspeed agreed as they started getting the verandah ready for an outside dinner.
After a hearty dinner, everypony relaxed in the slowly-darkening twilight of the day. Down on the grass of their yard, Starstruck played with Michael, Sarah and Alicia as their parents relaxed together. Machspeed had brought their small stereo system out onto the verandah and smiled as he put a record on the turntable. Once it was in place, he returned to settle beside Flashpoint. Kissing her lovingly, he said "This one's for you, Beloved, in celebration of your stupendous achievement."
"Here, here." Douglas and Shelley agreed, slapping the wooden decking with their forehoofs in applause.
Flashpoint blushed, but smiled and replied "Thank you, Love."
Machspeed nodded and used his magic to set the needle on the record. As Flashpoint leaned into Machspeed, the music started. She'd heard Machspeed play this song before, but now it had so much more meaning to her, now that she'd been there and saw what those who were there before her had seen. She swore to herself that she'd take Machspeed and Starstruck with her up there, so they could see it for themselves. Flashpoint sighed and returned to listening, as her favorite verse played...
River's gettin' dirty
Wind is gettin' bad
War and hate is killing off
The only Earth we have
But the World all stopped to watch
On a July afternoon
Watch the man named Armstrong
Walk upon the Moon
Watch the man named Armstrong
Walk upon the Moon
As she lay there against Machspeed, Flashpoint's eyes closed and she dreamed of another verse...
And I wonder if a short time ago
In another universe
They watched a mare named Flashpoint
Walk upon her Moon
They watched the mare named Flashpoint
Walk upon the Moon...
Last Flight Out of Kakadu by Starscribe
NOTE: This story was written by Starscribe, the creator of the Ponies After People universe in which I based Safe Landings. He wrote it as a result of a Patreon prompt from me.
About one hour before Event...
First Lieutenant Oscar Reyes stood on the edge of the loading gantry of the Albatross Semiautonomous Heavy Carrier. The sun had set less than an hour ago, leaving enough of a glow for him to still see some of the vastly expanded mine infrastructure. What had been only a few dozen slowly rusting buildings a few years ago had changed enormously since he'd started making these runs. Well over a billion dollars had been spent here in almost total secrecy, as it had in dozens of other black projects across the globe.
In Ranger Uranium Mine, the product of that expenditure was being loaded onto the back of his carrier. Just over a dozen large crates, made from steel and not lead. They were so hot that only autonomous robots could wheel them, the same sort of palette movers that now worked in many Amazon warehouses. Flat robots rolled up the ramp, deposited their loads in his cargo bay, then returned the way they'd come, avoiding him and the other members of his crew as they rushed in to secure them.
The crates were so radioactive that he could feel the warmth coming through the steel. But with the constant, low-level protection of a miniaturized CPNFG, he and every other member of his crew would not suffer ill effects. Without that machine running, no human could fly within an Albatross.
A small black truck wheeled up from the end of the tarmac, and a pair of Australian Army officers stepped out. One carried a clipboard in her hands, the other nothing but the sidearm on his belt. They avoided the line of robots rolling in from the factory, coming in from the other direction. Lieutenant Reyes walked down from the ramp and along the side of his ship to greet them. They stopped a few feet away, exchanged salutes. "We deliver Fuel Shipment 97," said the woman, her accent so thick Reyes had to strain his ears to understand what she was saying. She offered the clipboard.
"We accept Fuel Shipment 97," he echoed, taking the clipboard and signing with the practiced stroke of one hand. He passed the clipboard back.
Just like that, everyone relaxed. "How's the weather been, Kelly?" Well, not enough that they stopped using last names.
"Oh, beautiful some days, perfect on others," the male officer responded. "The usual. How's Virginia?"
"When I left? 84% humidity."
The female officer winced. "Shit, Reyes. You should stick around. We're going diving later, once the shift is over. I'm sure we could scrounge an extra set of gear somewhere."
He laughed, "That would be wonderful, Nguyen. But you know how particular they are about deliveries being on time." He glanced over his shoulder, back at the Albatross. "I get leave in another month. I'll see if the fish still hate me then."
There was a quiet, awkward silence then, as they all exchanged a dark look. No one knew if the world would still be here in a month's time. Their calculations had predicted January, and then March, and here they still were. Living on borrowed time. Unless the whole thing is shit wrong. Interuniversal practical joke. Please God, let it be that.The economy of the first world would probably come crashing down when people realized just how much money had been spent on this, but at least there would still be people to pick up the pieces. Instead of a few hundred of us living in a hole. Reyes had a spot in that hole, and these officers didn't. By the numbers, almost nobody who worked for the HPI would actually survive the end of the world. Like the rest of mankind, they would die in agony.
"Well, it looks like the shipment has been loaded," Reyes said, clearing his throat. "I'm sure my guys have everything packed in by now. Best be off."
They all straightened, saluting again. "Survive for us," Officer Kelly said.
"Because of people like you," Reyes replied. "We will."
He hurried back into the carrier, black uniform flapping along with the pleasant breeze. He could feel it even here, blowing off the coast. There were white sands, clear waters, and inviting resorts filled with beautiful women in too little clothing. Shame he couldn't stay.
The cargo bay had been packed, though thanks to the density of refined uranium and the lifting power of the engines, that meant it looked less than half full, Crates had been distributed throughout so as to even the load, not all packed into the front.
"How are we doing?" Reyes asked, stalking up through the cargo bay, through the machine room to the reactor, then up the cramped staircase to the second floor. He was tall enough that he had to stoop.
His NCO, Technical Sergeant Violet Gates, followed him up the tight hallways like a determined ghost. "Reactor nominal, shielding stable at 5% average load. Tray tables are folded and cargo's been packed."
They passed through living areas, crammed in as tightly as they might be on a submarine. There would be no privacy here, no separate living areas for men and women. Every inch of space was precious. The cockpit had no doors for that reason, though unlike the smaller Hummingbird, it did have a copilot seat. Everything inside was digital, every display, every readout, even the windows. "Excellent work, as always," he said, loudly enough that the other members of the crew would hear. "I'm sure we're already a few seconds behind schedule. Raven will be expecting us."
"Aye, sir," Gates said. No salutes, though—there wasn't enough space to move their arms that far on the upper deck.
Reyes strapped himself into the pilot's chair while Gates secured herself beside him in the copilot's seat. He fastened his headset, positioning the clear microphone just beside his face as he reached his hands into the holofield. No moving parts in the entire cockpit, as it happened, except for on the chairs. It wasn't the same as flying conventional aircraft, but Reyes had gotten used to it by now. "This is Albatross Ganymede calling from Ranger Procurement," he said, switching into his flat radio voice. Not that their communication actually used radio. "Requesting departure clearance."
"Reyes," came the voice on the other end, approximately two seconds later. Taylor's voice sounded annoyed. "You're behind."
Another pause. Long enough for Reyes to mouth “what did I tell you” towards Gates.
"Aussies give you green for trans-pacific departure, relay point Granny."
"Roger, Ganymede out." He clicked the radio off, focusing his attention on the controls. Almost everything the Albatross did was actually controlled by advanced guidance computers, like a more expensive version of the consumer drones everyone was flying these days. The whole cockpit was a glorified backup system.
The Albatross Heavy Carrier lifted vertically into the air, carrying shipment 97 of humanity's last hope.
3235 years later...
"Machspeed, could you come here a minute?" Amelia asked, gesturing urgently. She was the current controller on duty for the A.R.R.R.S, a position that included with it responsibilities as Melbourne's air traffic control. Not a particularly difficult job, considering they were lucky to get a single flight in or out every few days, but one Amelia ordinarily seemed to resent.
There was nothing of that feeling to her now, nothing but urgency as she gestured at the console in front of her. It was the display of their newly installed radar system, the latest in post-Event engineering. Compared to the pre-Event world it was a children's toy. Of course, nopony would know that based on the price it had cost to install. "What is it?"
She pointed down at the screen with one hoof just as the sensor rotated around. He heard the slight pinging sound as a dark shape appeared there, then faded away until the dish rotated back around. Again the shape appeared, exactly where it had been before. "Five hundred kilometers," she said, without prompting. "And yes, I checked the dish. It's not broken."
Machspeed narrowed his eyes, focusing on the glowing lump on the screen. "Navy lifting helicopter, maybe?" Whatever it was, it was as big as a C5 Galaxy, and it was holding still in midair. "I'll get a spotter, hold on."
"Sure thing, boss," she waved with one hoof. "Can you get a sub up here while you're at it? I wanna come."
He nodded. "I assume you've been calling them."
"Yeah, and I haven't heard back. Either there's nothing out there, or they aren't listening."
A few hours later and Machspeed had learned only bad news. The object remained where it had been, drifting less than a kilometer. Much more interesting, his spotting team reported there was apparently nothing there. Even his sharpest eyes could find nothing more than "the air looks a bit weird."
"So... what?" Flashpoint asked, when they'd assembled at A.R.R.R.S. HQ. "Something returns out over the ocean, something we can't see?" She shrugged one shoulder. "I bet I can still get us there. Position, heading, altitude... that's all I need."
"That's assuming we should," Machspeed said, expression serious. "It might be returnees, but it might be something else. We can't ask them if they need help if they don't pick up."
"If they don't pick up, they need help," Amelia offered. "I still remember how crazy it was. Passengers hysterical, barely able to work the controls... imagine what you'd think if you were military. What if we were under attack?"
"I've thought about it," Machspeed said. "They're burning fuel fast to keep something that big airborne. I'd say they have an hour left, if I wanted to be generous. But it might be less." He cleared his throat. "Listen, everypony. I don't know if this is safe. Maybe it's nothing, and we'll just end up coming right back. But it might be ponies in danger, with hardware at their hooves that could seriously hurt ponies if they think we were attacked."
"So what you're saying is, we're going," Flashpoint said. "Great! Ever since the space thing I'd worried I'd never get another real challenge."
It appeared that Reyes and his crew had witnessed the end of the world. It had come in a flash, so bright he might've been blinded were there a real window. He had opened his mouth to shout instructions to boost the CPNFG's protections to full, jerked towards the panel to carry out that order himself in case Gates failed to do so in time—and then found himself on the floor. Somehow he'd been small enough to slip out of his restraints, though how that was even possible he couldn't guess.
The alarm was sounding, the same alarm he knew to expect in the event of even a brief failure in the CPNFG. Yet for all that, the cockpit appeared intact.
A shame he wasn't.
His uniform had mostly slipped out, in the same time it had taken him to struggle out of the seat, flopping onto the floor. There was no need to worry about the Albatross falling out of the air—without connection to route control, it would just hover in place without his manual input. Until the reactor ran out of fuel, and they tumbled from the sky. It might take months.
Gates appeared to be unconscious in her seat, though he also couldn't see any of her actual body in her seat.
If the CPNFG went down, we're all dead. The reactor would take hours to give them a fatal dose, but the Thaumic field would not. Even seconds could be enough. Assess the damage, Reyes thought, forcing himself to be cogent. Look for necrosis of the soft tissues. I already have the disorientation. Something made it feel like his uniform trousers had slipped right off, and that his jacket hung over his body as badly fitting as a child's first Halloween costume. Obviously he couldn't actually have shrunk that much.
He shoved on one arm until it came through the sleeve, staring down. What he saw made no sense—it was like looking at some kind of lizard, dark orange scales broken with an occasional red. The hand was shrunken, with sharp claws instead of fingernails. "This isn't right."
Except the computer. "Danger: Critical Failure in CPNFG. Unsafe interior radiation levels detected. Manual restart required."
That explained why he hadn't heard anyone—the level of ionizing radiation produced by the reactor even at idle was enough to disorient in under an hour and kill in a day. His cancer risk was probably ticking up by the second.
"Is anyone alive?" Reyes shouted, stumbling out of the cockpit and into the hall. "Fields, are you down there in engineering?" No response. No time for him to wait. He ran.
Ran might've been a tad generous. He tripped over himself, smashing into walls and floors and digging huge scratches into the metal with his claws. Something moved behind him that might've been a tail, he ignored that. Halfway down he finally managed to get the uniform jacket free from his body, so that he was down to boxers and pale cotton top. That meant less to impair his movement, though the top was long enough that it was almost a kilt.
He reached engineering, the most dangerous part of the ship. The reactor itself was sunk into the lower level, but even down here he could hear the steady hum. Sergeant Fields was still strapped into his flight seat, though the face hanging limply from within the uniform did not look human. Reyes ignored that for the moment, dashing past him to the CPNFG.
The machine meant to save humanity did not look very impressive. A single dark canister of exotic matter, which was fitted into a dynamically scaling coil of a thousand electromagnets. Their specific function was beyond him, though he knew it had something to do with charged plasma and super magnets. Something to do with the negative-energy-density mass stored in the container. That single canister was worth more than many countries.
That was why it ejected from the system in the event of a crisis, resting at the edge of the mechanism. It was worth more than the lives of his crew—unlike the rest of the machinery of the CPNFG, it could not be replaced.
It now stood out of reach, a full foot over his head.
Reyes stopped at the edge of the machine, before crouching down and jumping with all his might. Something moved on his back entirely without prompting, getting tangled in his thin tank-top, but it didn't matter. He reached the control panel, and pulled himself up. He wasn't wearing his black shoes anymore, but had clawed feet like his hands. That didn't matter. He reached out towards the container, taking hold of it with both claws, and pushed.
It slid along the tracks back into the machine, where the inner vial would be exposed. A faintly greenish glow emerged from within. The coils contracted around it like they were alive, and the ground shook under him. Reyes felt an awful constriction in his chest, like the world was pressing in around him. He stumbled backward onto his back, falling several feet to the ground. The metal dented instead of him.
Yet the awful feeling remained, despite the lights all going green. "Initialization cycle complete. CPNFG field consumption stable at 30% nominal output."
Reyes lifted his head one last time, staring up at the readout. The CPNFG was running at nearly its full capacity now, just like the unit in Raven. That could mean only one thing. The world had ended.
But that was too much. The strain of his run down to engineering and the radiation and the pain finally caught up with him. He slumped to the ground, unconscious.
The A.R.R.R.S. team appeared aboard the strange aircraft with all the grace of a set of fine china falling down the stairs. Instead of her ordinary impeccable skill, Flashpoint dropped them two feet in the air with aching ears, aching lungs, and bodies covered in a thin layer of frost.
Machspeed was the first to collect himself, scraping the icy layer from his eyelids and rising to shaky hooves. "What happened, Flashpoint?"
His wife grunted, and her voice sounded enormously strained from the floor. "S-something... didn't want us in here! Like a counterspell! I really... really had to push." She rolled onto her back, looking up at him from the floor. "Sorry. It's hard to mind the creature comforts with all those other numbers in my head."
"Yeah, creature comforts," Sunbeam repeated, shaking frost from his wings. "Like atmosphere."
"Breach detected," came a flat, mechanized voice from above them. "Sterilizing."
Nothing visual happened next, no change to the cramped hallway they'd appeared in. Even so, Machspeed had been less staggered by hooves to the face. It was suddenly like all the life had been squashed out of the whole world. His horn felt heavy and useless, his mind sluggish and pained. The glow in his horn went out, and he nearly fell over completely. No amount of effort would bring the light spell back, or any other for that matter.
"Thaumic breech contained," said the flat voice from overhead. The sirens stopped, and the lights went from flashing red to white again.
Machspeed hadn't been the only target. If his crew had been dazed by their arrival, now they looked positively miserable. "Damn," Amelia said. "What is... that... feeling..."
"Get us out of here," he said, reaching over to help Flashpoint to her hooves. "Now!"
"I can't!" she whined. "I'm trying! My magic isn't working!"
"Damn," he muttered. "I guess we know what you had to punch through to get us here."
"It's a..." She whimpered, gritting her teeth. "It's a generalized anti-magic field. I've heard of spells like this. Pretty advanced magic, though. This must not be a returnee aircraft after all."
Machspeed had been so concerned with their arrival he hadn't even thought about his surroundings. He considered them now, listening for the sound of the massive rotors he expected to be holding them in the air and not finding them. Big airplanes always had big engines, which could be heard even from within a pressurized cabin. Yet he could hear almost nothing here, only a rumble through his hooves.
But it did look a little like an ancient aircraft. Or... maybe submarine. Aircraft aluminum walls and floors, with tiny stowage areas here or there. The hallway stretched in either direction, though he couldn't say which was fore and which was aft. He picked a direction at random. "If we can't teleport off, we'll have to escape," he said. "Find a way to depressurize the cabin and open it from the inside."
He started wandering in the direction he took for forward. Yet he hadn't made it more than a few steps before he heard Sunbeam. "Hey, captain! I think maybe we might've judged too soon. Looks like I found the returnees." Sunbeam had gone the other direction, forcing Machspeed to turn and hurry to follow. Or walk quickly, since anything that required more motivation seemed impossible. His whole body felt crushed, crushed by an invisible weight of lethargy that came from everywhere and overwrote everything.
There was a set of slim chairs on one of the walls, the sort many a crew on non-passenger aircraft used during takeoff and landing. There were three ponies strapped in here, the restraints only loosely holding them in place. But they didn't look good—little rivulets of blood dribbled from their mouths, their eyes. Vomit was congealed on the ground, and other unpleasant bodily fluids. They weren't conscious, but they were breathing.
"Have you ever seen this before?" Amelia asked, straightening the military uniform one of them was wearing so they could read the markings. Machspeed didn't recognize a single symbol on it, except for the three letters on the collar. "HPI."
"This isn't how the Preservation Spell works," Flashpoint said. "Everypony comes back perfect. Disabilities missing, illnesses cured... it doesn't hurt ponies like this!"
"Then something else did," Sunbeam said. "And we're trapped with it."
"Alright," Machspeed said, speaking slowly and clearly. "Flashpoint, with me. Sunbeam, Amelia, explore those stairs that way. Keep your eye out for more returnees who might need our help. And if you could find the way out, or a way to disable the spell that's trapping us here, that would be great too."
"More than great," Flashpoint added. "Whatever this is, it can't just float here forever. If the anti-magic doesn't get us, the fall will. And these ponies clearly need a doctor. They're beyond any first-aid we could give them."
"Right." They split up, Machspeed leading the way past the stairs towards a tiny dead end, which had to be the cockpit or the aft of the plane. Assuming we aren't walking around on a UFO or something. But it seemed unlikely that UFOs would have English writing on everything, or that the ones flying one would be ponies in ill-fitting military uniforms with little flag pins.
The tiny room beyond looked a little like a cockpit, with an aerodynamic slope, instrument panels running along the outside, and a pilot and copilot's chair. But the similarities ended there—there was no glass, no window, nothing but strange flickering projections that appeared when he neared the wall and switched off again as he moved past. The very front became a projection as well, and he could see a washed-out version of the exterior sky, clouds drifting slowly above and the ocean far below. It wasn't just the top of the aircraft that looked suddenly transparent, but the bottom as well, superimposed with a status HUD like the interior of an advanced fighter jet.
Some of what it displayed looked familiar to him, though there were an awful lot of zeros that couldn't have appeared on any of the aircraft he had flown back in the Royal Air Force. But other things; "Reactor Status: Nominal", "Fuel: 2% Entropy" were entirely unknown. He could at least guess at what "External Thaumic Field: 5.67 Sievert/hour. Within acceptable tolerance. Internal Thaumic Field: 1.07 Sievert/hour. DANGER! EXTREME HAZARD! CPNFG AT MAXIMUM OUTPUT! Internal radiation source detected!"
The thaumic field was what passed through everything and gave ponies their magic. From the look of the display, he had just figured out why he was so uncomfortable: there wasn't enough magic in here.
"Ughhh," someone moaned from beside them. While he had been fiddling with the controls, Flashpoint had been extricating a pony from her restraints. An earth pony with a light blue coat and darker mane had been strapped into the copilot seat, though her pony limbs would not be long enough to reach what passed for controls.
"Can you hear me?" Flashpoint asked.
The pony nodded blearily. "I'm... experiencing... symptoms of... thaumic poisoning..." she said, a little drool and blood oozing from her mouth. "Disorientation... hallucinations... Kill me before... I die on my own."
"There's no such thing," Flashpoint said, stern. "I don't know what’s actually wrong with you, but I'm sure we can treat it. Melbourne has some excellent doctors."
The pony made a vague, pained gesture with one hoof, then slumped to the floor again, breathing heavily.
"Damn." Flashpoint sighed. "Guess we won't be learning how this works from her. If we could just figure out how to dispel whatever's grounding us, we could get the returnees out."
Machspeed lifted one leg towards the side-panel. The space above filled with controls, one of which even looked a little like that he'd see on any other aircraft, except that it wasn't connected with anything. Numerous other dials, switches, and readouts appeared beside it, any of which he might manipulate if he wanted. Save that for a last resort.
"Machspeed!" came Sunbeam's voice from down the hall, urgent and getting closer. "We found somepony awake!"
He turned in time to see them struggling up the stairs, helping a young orange dragon stay on his claws. The dragon looked a little dazed, a little confused, but compared to the ponies, he was far more awake. Not terribly surprising. Dragons can take more punishment than ponies.
"That's not all," Amelia added, gesturing down the stairs. "There's a cargo bay down there. It's filled with, uh... more nuclear warnings than I've ever seen in one place."
They stopped in the cockpit, the dragon's arm wrapped around Sunbeam's neck. That seemed to be enough to keep him standing, if barely. "That's... our cargo," the dragon said. Unlike the pilot, his accent had a trace of Spanish in it, rather than American. "Raven city needs it..." he said. "World must've ended... people dying... maybe me too, but it doesn't matter if the shipment gets through."
Machspeed walked over to the exit, sitting on his haunches so he would be at eye level with the dragon. "My name is Machspeed, captain of the A.R.R.R.S. We're here to get you and your crew to safety. Who are you?"
"Reyes," he croaked. "First Lieutenant Oscar Reyes. Captain of the Ganymede. Why are you horses?"
"That's... a bit of a long story," Flashpoint said. "Short answer is..." She paused. "Wait a minute, how do you know the world ended?"
The dragon slumped to the floor, though it wasn't clear if it had been fatigue or just lack of coordination with his new body. Machspeed didn't know enough dragons to know for sure. "We've known for years. All the big countries..." He tapped the metal wall beside him with one claw. "My aircraft is bound for Raven City, our central bunker. It's... specially shielded against thaumic radiation. The confluence... must've overcome my Albatross’s shields... but Raven's are much stronger, and they're running all the time. The city is still there. They'll need the fuel we're carrying more than ever. I have to get there."
"I hate to be the one to tell you this..." Machspeed said. "But your shipment is going to be late. Over three thousand years late. Whoever these people are waiting for you in Raven, they either got along without you or they didn't.
"What? No! I have to... can't..." He made to rise, reaching for the empty pilot's chair. Then he fell on his face.
"Easy, easy," Amelia said, as Sunbeam reached down to help the dragon to his claws. "You're still disoriented. That'll pass, you'll get your bearings. Take it easy."
Machspeed stepped to the side, right into his way. "Listen to me, Reyes. Your aircraft... is unsafe for your new body and the bodies of your crew. We need magic to survive. I need you to tell me how to switch it off. Then we can get back to the ground..." And let this thing sink to the bottom of the ocean, where it belongs. But he didn't say that part.
The dragon stared up at him. He glanced to one side, at the state of the pilot where she still rested bloody and unconscious. He looked around at them, at their strange bodies, at his clawed hands. "We can't," he eventually said, defeated. "Even if you're... right, this ship is... full of radiation. We use an unshielded reactor to fly. We're carrying highly refined nuclear fuel. If I turn off the thaumic shield, we'll be dead in minutes. I... I suspect my crew and I are dead already. When the confluence occurred... it overwhelmed the shield. I had to go down and turn it on manually. There's no treatment for radiation poisoning."
Machspeed looked again to the pilot, at the slow trickle of blood from her mouth and the disorientation on her face. That did explain the symptoms of the returnee crew.
"There is now," Flashpoint corrected. "There's a spell for it. Unicorn magic. It's not an easy one... well beyond what I could do. But there are doctors in Melbourne who can. We need to get you and your crew back to the ground."
"I don't know..." Reyes muttered, staring down at his claws. "I don't know if I can fly it like this. The guidance computer is gone... there's no way to have it do the routing for us..."
"Oh, I've got an idea for that!" Amelia called, smiling slightly. "We already tested the loading ramp—it works. We could jump."
And that was exactly what they did. It took well over an hour, between gathering up the crew and tying everypony together, so that they wouldn't drift apart once they left the aircraft. A few of them woke up, stumbling around or struggling a little against their bonds, but none was healthy enough to fight.
"This won't be too hard, right Flashpoint?" Amelia asked, peeking out over the edge. They weren't moving forward at speed, but even so the open ramp was enough to let in the sound of howling air and the roar of the rotors. Though silent from either side, the massive blades were incredibly loud when you were underneath.
"No problem," Flashpoint responded, tied at the front of the group. "Getting rid of inertia is always part of a teleport. The only real question is how far we have to fall before we get our magic back."
"Not far," Reyes called. "The generator has a range of 30 meters in every direction. Once we leave it, we'll be..." His wings twitched uneasily on his back. "Well, no idea. We were supposed to be cooked alive, but some horses came to save us. I guess we were... I guess we were wrong about magic. Somehow."
"Not exactly," Machspeed said. "But we can talk about that once we get you to a hospital. You can hear the whole story if you want."
"Good," he replied. "My crew and I will... want to come back, once they get care. We still have a delivery to complete."
Machspeed opened his mouth to reply, then shut it again. There was no reason to upset this pony by telling him how impossible that was. Soon enough the fuel would run out, and it would go tumbling into the ocean, taking its toxic cargo with it. But he didn't say that, because now it was time to jump. "Stay close, everypony! Sunbeam, be ready to catch any stragglers."
"You know it!" The pegasus grinned, dashing the few steps and out. He fell immediately away from the ship, gone from sight.
"Alright!" Machspeed shouted, bracing against the backs of the tied-together ponies. "Three... two... one!" He shoved. Flashpoint and Amelia did the same, even the dragon helped. Together they went tumbling away into the void.
A few days later...
With the faint flash of a teleport, a pair of figures appeared in the cockpit of the Ganymede. Unlike the ponies, they were not dwarfed by the high ceilings, but instead stood so tall they nearly scraped against them. Both dressed in loose-fitting cloth, which began to billow about in the air aboard the ship. Both looked female, though the differences were far less pronounced than they often were for humans. Without a word, both hurried to the pilot and copilot's chairs, securing themselves. Hands flew through the holographic controls, skin pale from lifetimes in the dark.
One retracted the ramp, and the air stopped billowing. She reached up, straightening her long greenish braid. The other picked up the headset hanging from the rack, putting it on and fiddling with the controls. "Midgard, this is Retrieval. HPI-Ganymede has been secured."
"No crew. Ponies got them. Probably A.R.R.R.S."
"Roger, retrieval out."
The other kept tinkering with the display, its contents blanked, leaving them briefly in darkness. The words "EXTERNAL GUIDANCE OVERRIDE" appeared, and at once they veered sharply left, rotors roaring as they began to accelerate towards supersonic.
Elements taken from My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic are © 2016 Hasbro.
Original characters and story copyright © 2016 Bernard Doove.
Episodes by guest authors are copright to them.
Art is © 2016 Kat Miller.
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