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!
Mark 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.
Mark 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, Mark 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. Mark 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 Mark 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 Mark and said, “And it sounds like she’s just hit her credibility wall. Any word from the A.R.R.R. yet?”
Mark 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, Mark 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.”
Mark 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!”
Mark 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 Mark heard before the door closed behind him was, “Holy shit! I’m a unicorn!”
Mark 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 Mark and gave him a hoofbump.
“It’s been a while, hasn’t it, Hayfield?”
Mark 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?”
Mark 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,” Mark replied with a smirk.
“Heh! Yeah. Hopefully we’ll develop something better eventually,” Machspeed replied as he and Flashpoint followed Mark 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.”
Mark 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.
Mark 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 a runway 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 sky-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 sky-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 sky-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. 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, Second 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. “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!”
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.
The game had not achieved a result before it was announced that the food was ready. 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 removed it from 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. Sunray, 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 feet 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 plug 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 in. 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 in the company of 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!
Elements taken from My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic are © 2016 Hasbro.
Original characters and story copyright © 2016 Bernard Doove.
Art is © 2016 Kat Miller.
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