© 2004 Stratadrake/Draconus of TWZ
Second Revision, 4-26-2004
Don't be deceived by the Rin Sha's promises!
Refractor energy will not last forever! It will cause the death of this Land!
Rise up and fight back! Now is the time!
Protectors of this Land,
For many long months, messages like that had existed across many a Rin Sha advertisement in each and every District of the City. For countless moons the authorities had dismissed and ignored such warnings as idle threats. Yet tonight, the threats were now vindicated, as the rising pillar of light and fire slowly began to rouse the City's rulers out of their complacency into the realization of a war brought upon them. In return, as emergency batteries restored some measure of illumination to electricity-deprived City streets, the sleeping giant looked back down and cast a vow to destroy those who had broken the titan out of its dreams.
The rebels knew this was not a victory to celebrate. For as much as their mission had succeeded, they stared back in disbelief at the impossible, the sight of a fiery devastation behind them. They had planned merely to incapacitate the Refractor; their meager explosive had lacked the size and the power to accomplish something as breathtaking as the momumentous torch shining at the northernmost corner of the City. Something had gone wrong, something which they had not anticipated, and something they could not piece together from the fire and debris surrounding what was once one of eight City generators.
"That should keep the Land goin'," one of the victors, Berett, mused as he looked out through the entrance of a sewer conduit offering shelter, to the rising sight behind them, a small confusion over the scope of the destruction yielding to the desire of seeing that technological scourge meeting a visible, fiery end. "At least for a little while, anyway...."
"I... I don't get it," the hacker Jess muttered from her position next to Berett in the shadows. She and Biggs had spent two days constructing their explosive, and even in their greatest dreams they could not have predicted such a consequence to their actions.
"Jess," Biggs asked, looking back from the closed and capped end of their tunnel, pausing from his current task of setting up an explosive at that end. "You don't think we made a mistake, do ya?"
Jess shook her head in a negative response. "I don't know. I just don't know...."
"Our foes were still in the complex when it blew," Cloud said, referring to the enemies which had impeded their escape, and thinking of how fortunate they had been to escape the devastation ahead of the enemy.
"Yeah...," Jess nodded. "Horrible... I bet a lot of families will be receiving notices saying that their loved ones died in that explosion...."
Berett glanced around at the tunnel they were resting in. "We can worry about that later. They're gonna be looking for us now. We gotta move out...."
"Okay, get back," Biggs said as he struck a fuse to light it, then jumping back towards the comrades. Biggs counted down from five, and the shaped charge detonated as if in response to his expertise in this field. Smoke and dust swirled to life as the majority of the blast directed itself towards the end of the pipe, blowing its cap clear off and opening up a passage to the streets of the District. Sparse illumination from emergency torches and streetlights engaged the darkness as the air cleared, and as the five rebels galloped their way to the freedom of the streets, evacuated for now of its citizens.
"Okay," Berett instructed, gaining the instant attention of all but his newest comrade. "We'll split up to avoid getting spotted, then rendezvous back at the station! I'd reckon there's about ten minutes or so before they leave for home, so we can't go missing it!"
Jess, Biggs, and Wedge ran out into the streets, each taking a different path at the nearest intersection. Berett began walking to follow up, but Cloud stopped him. "Hey!"
"If yer wonderin' about the money, save it till we're back at the hideout," Berett silenced. "Now get your flyer butt in gear, and watch out for the patrols!" With that as a final remark Berett trotted out into the streets, leaving Cloud behind.
After waiting for Berett to disappear into the distance, Cloud began walking out, trotting around dumpsters and other garbage piled around the area. Distant sirens caught Cloud's ears as he stepped out of an alley into a street filled with overturned, fortunately empty vehicles and bits of glass shattered recently from windows all over the area. Cloud's mental compass told him that the station was somewhere south, but as he never memorized the path he took on the way in, he had no idea exactly where. Cloud took the southmost route from the T-shaped intersection, travelling down through its stem through a path devoid of citizenry.
Through shadows of buildings and underneath the sound of far-overhead helicopters Cloud walked, with only the Refractor explosion and a few streetlights to see by. On the other side of this block lay an open brick plaza almost cleared of shattered window glass, surrounded by closed merchant stands, and with an empty fountain in the center. A ring of streetlights surrounded the plaza with faint light, and a few pony citizens could be seen walking around the plaza, large brooms in hand clearing the debris from the area. A fire burned brightly near one edge of the plaza, and many citizens surrounded it, hoping to partake of its light and warmth. Cloud walked around the fountain, musing at the artistic spout in its center, carved to resemble a great figure from legends, an ancient equine decorated with thick, translucent wings for flight. Looking past this unappreciated work of art Cloud spotted a familiar scrawl of red spray paint on a far wall, one of the messages left unheeded until now.
Then a voice interrupted Cloud from his thoughts. "Excuse me, are you . . . ?"
"What?" Cloud responded without thinking, before casting a single eye on the pony requesting his attention. As he turned around, his eyes settled on a light red mare with a thick, golden-brown mane, a red cape, and holding on to a basket filled with unusual colors.
Cloud looked at the mare in surprise. "Flowers...? Where in Midnight City does anyone find such beauty?"
The mare giggled in response. "Do you like them?"
Cloud looked at the mare and at the various blossoms in her posession. He hesitated to ask of their price. "How... much are they?"
She looked back at Cloud, staring deeply into his eyes, and Cloud's gaze meeting a deep emerald sea in her own. "Two silver," she finally decided.
At first Cloud was taken aback, did his ears deceive him? There she stood, a mare selling the single most prized import commodity in all of Midnight City, and for less than the cost of a small breakfast? Cloud blinked several times, his mind failing to register what he was hearing.
"So, what do you say?" The mare asked again. Cloud looked at her, the disbelief showing plainly through his eyes. And yet, in examining the seller closely, Cloud could see no traces of deception in the two jade diamonds staring back at him.
Cloud drew out his pouch and searched through it, then withdrew two silver coins from it and chipped it into the mare's flower basket. She smiled in response, then produced a flower of almost a blindingly vivid red color and handed it to Cloud. "You can have this one."
Cloud took the blossom, then put it into his pack for safe-keeping. With luck the rose might survive until some place safer for the fragile blossoms."Did you see that explosion?" The mare asked, pointing northwards at the pillar of fire and light still shimmering in the distance.
"How could I not?" Cloud countered.
"They say the terrorists caused it...."
"That --" Cloud started, but halted when he realized what he was thinking. He had no idea who he was talking to, and giving away his employer would be most unwise. So he lied. "Doesn't concern me. I'm... just trying to get home. Do you know where the station is?"
"That's easy. Just go south for three more blocks and you'll be there in no time."
"Thanks," Cloud said. "But I must get going...."
"Be careful," the mare advised. "The military's out in force, and they're looking for whomever did it. And you can't afford to be getting caught...."
"Wha...?" Cloud objected. Had he given himself away so easily? Stunned, Cloud failed to notice the mare bidding him farewell. By the time Cloud glanced her direction again, she was turning around to walk away, and at that point Cloud noticed something peculiar about her mane, perhaps a hint why.
She, Cloud realized, was a unicorn.
Cloud shook the questions and doubts from his head and tried to focus on his next objective as he began walking in the direction that the mare -- the unicorn had directed him. Cloud trotted down the next block, looking at the empty buildings whose windows failed to stand up to the Refractor's massive blast earlier, the remains of which showered the streets and reflected the scant lighting like a carpet made up of sparkling stars. In some way, the shards of safety glass were almost beautiful, except --
"HALT!" Shouted a voice from Cloud's left as he spotted a uniformed equine out the left corner of his vision. About one city block straight ahead lay a stretch of railroad tracks, accompanied by a pair of trains at the Eighth District station.
And a Rin Sha soldier was drawing a bead across Cloud's flank with the target designator of his standard-issue laser rifle. The soldier muttered into a helmet-mounted headset. "He fits the description... call for backup!"
"Do not attempt to move!" The soldier ordered as he stepped closer. Cloud sighed, trying to think of what he could do next. There was only one opponent, and the station wasn't too far away. If Cloud acted quickly, he could try to make a run for the station. But he would not get far with the sight of a laser rifle firmly upon him. He would need a diversion....
Cloud realized an opportunity as the soldier stepped closer. Cloud squinted at the enemy approaching him, as he began focusing his thoughts on something else, and as one of the gems affixed in his weapon began to shine quietly in response.
"Present your ID card, please!" The soldier shouted, as he neared within ten paces of Cloud.
As you wish, Cloud would have answered in mock compliance, but his concentration blocked out the first portion the statement, and he gave the soldier a mere "You wish".
"What did you say!?" The guard shot back, hefting his rifle up higher in a threat of what he would do to such an insubordinate citizen as Cloud. But Cloud rendered the threat empty in short order, as his focused thoughts resonated very strongly with the glowing emerald gem stored in his weapon, and a bolt of electricity flared to life, leaping through the air straight into the guard's rifle, through his armor, and dissipating into the ground. The soldier's armor had shielded him against the bulk of Cloud's surprise attack, but in so doing it had also fried the primary circuits on his rifle, and only the clicking sound of an internal relay greeted their ears as the soldier retaliated by squeezing the trigger.
That was all the diversion Cloud needed, and he took off running towards the distant railroad as his opponent sent out a plea for help on his radio.
Then a bright laser beam, a warning shot, seared its way across Cloud's line of vision. Cloud skidded to a stop, curving his view towards where the shot may have originated from, and he spotted three Rin Sha military soldiers galloping his way, lasers at the ready. Cloud realized that they wouldn't be able to fire a stable shot while running, and he pondered continuing his gallop towards the station. But ahead in the distance he spotted three more military soldires clearing distance citizenry out of the way. And behind him, in addition to the soldier he had electrified just moments ago, he could see another pair of Rin Sha soldiers running his way.
Damn, they were closing in on him. Looking around for any form of cove, Cloud spotted one possibility, and took to the air. In a mighty, wing-assisted leap he ascended nearly fifteen feet skywards, and came into contact with his target, a towering open-weave metal structure that bridged far above the railroad tracks, an electrical tower carrying high-voltage electrical lines.
Laser beams sliced through the vicinity as Cloud locked his hooves around the framework of the tower and then carefully sidling himself to a side in view of the station as nearly a dozen of his opponents closed in on the vicinity. The lack of time to think had precluded Cloud from planning more than five seconds ahead, and now there he was, adhering with all fours to a metal tower, and trying to think of what, if anything, he could do next.
Cloud's mind froze at the scenario. Of course he could always jump off from the tower and glide somewhere, but no matter what direction he chose he would be vulnerable to attack from the opponents below him. Climbing down and handing himself in wasn't an option either. Cloud's mind continued to draw blanks as he looked to the west, to the east, north and south. What was he to do? What could he do?
A miracle intervened as a distant train whistle sounded throughout the air, jumpstarting Cloud's thought processes. The train! With his current elevation, Cloud could easily jump from the tower and glide over to the station. Sure, it was crazy, and to come crashing down amidst a crowd of Upper Class citizens would raise no small amount of eyebrows, but he was out of options, it was either to stay there and get caught or do something, so he chose the latter and jumped!
A swift breeze welcomed Cloud's wings as he forcefully pried himself clear of the tower. Half a flip and twist, then Cloud was upright, guiding himself through the smoky air above the railroad tracks, and hoping that somehow he might escape much injury.
A high-powered laser beam cut through the thick air just to Cloud's right as his earthbound opponents began opening fire. Almost instinctively Cloud veered his flight path to the left, then to the right again as a followup pair of laser beams sliced through empty space. Instantaneous as lasers are they still relied on the user's ability to aim properly, and with each near miss, Cloud thanked whatever power or fortune could enable such an escape.
Yet it would not last longer. Another shot sailed through the air and clipped straight through the feathers on Cloud's right wing, sending an arc of pain jutting through the limb to Cloud's brain. Cloud nearly stumbled out of flight into freefall as he winced to steady his course, as a trio of blue feathers floated down from their owner.
A second and third shot seared by, missing by mere inches, as Cloud quickly approached a train, the only train at this time, just now accelerating from the station. Cloud flapped his wings to slow his gliding speed and descend faster, so that he could land on the train safely.
At that time, amid Cloud's hovering another beam from his pursuing foes seared a lucky hit through the feathers on Cloud's wing, this time a bit closer to the flesh, and the additional pain was too much for Cloud to endure in flight any longer. Cloud's flying skills failed him at this point, and he began tumbling like a rock towards the tracks below. A fall from this height was potentially lethal even for a pegasus, and as the ground careened closer Cloud shut his eyes to prepare for the worst, praying that somehow he would land feet first....
His prayers were answered as his legs clattered onto a smooth, metallic surface distinctly unlike that of the metal rails and wooden ties he was expecting to land upon; Cloud's feet instantly swept out from under him as he toppled over onto his back, tumbling and rolling with the excess momentum of his fall, across the length of one, two, even three full passenger cars. Finally he came to a stop, bruised all over from his wings to his legs and neck, and he lay there motionless, clinging to consciousness and hoping that his foes would mistake him for dead as the accelerating locomotive rushed past his foes, into the protective shadows of a tunnel on its predestined path from the Upper Eighth District to the ground level.
"What was that?" Biggs asked, looking up at a small dent in the ceiling of the train car they had chosen for the trip home, a passenger car replete with worn seats, tarnished windows, and swinging handlestraps rusted from lack of use; yet depleted of other passengers, who had evacuated to the next car forwards for fear of the foor hoodlums now occupying it.
"Probably rocks," Berett stated back from his position on a worn seat halfway down the length of the car.
"Must be some pretty heavy rocks," Wedge noted as he kept a firm grip on one of the car's handlestraps above him.
"Can't be that; we're not even in the tunnel yet," Jess said, eyeing the window she sat next to as a view of several Rin Sha soldiers breezed by.
Biggs shook his head. "Cloud.... You don't suppose they caught him?"
Berett shrugged. "Who knows? The kid's got spunk, I reckon he wouldn't go down without a fight...."
"Yeah, you think he would keep fighting? You know, to the end?"
"Hey what am I, Mimic or somethin'?" Berett exclaimed angrily. "How should I know!?"
"You just said --"
"Forget about it! Jus' enjoy the ride!"
"Sorry," Biggs said. The roof echoed with the sounds of several somethings impacting against it.
"More rocks, huh...?" Biggs presumed aloud.
"The kid was a good fighter," Berett mused. "A bit of a showoff, maybe, but a good fighter anyways. Shame he won't be makin' it back...."
"Don't say that!" Jess reprimanded.
Berett ignored the insubordination. "Well look at us! The train's gone, he's not here, how do ya think he's gonna get back home!?"
Berett noticed the distraught expressions answering him, and sighed. "Look, I'll tell ya what. If he can catch up to this train now that we're in the tunnel, he might jus' be worth an extra 50 gold. But I don't think he's gonna --"
Just then the back door of the car burst open forcefully, followed by a certain blue pegasus, battered, bruised, and with one singed wing, as Cloud descended into the car.
"CLOUD!" Three of the four comrades rejoiced in unison.
Berett's train of thought ground to a halt at the spectacle, and his mouth hang open in surprise. In a moment he blinked and snapped to attention. "Well I'll be -- I jus' knew you'd show up if I started talking 'bout your pay!"
"Sorry if I'm a bit late," Cloud said as he staggered on in and lay down.
"Late?" Berett shouted back. "Yer really somethin', ya know that? Here we were all wonderin' if you got caught or somethin, and you jus' fly in here like it's no big deal!?"
"Whoa," Cloud started. "Let me this get this straight. The fearless Berett, was actually worried about me?"
"Hell no I didn't --" Berett responded before stopping his thoughts in their tracks. "I mean --" He stammered. "Alright, wise guy, if you ever say somethin' like that again, I'm takin' it outta yer PAY, understand?!"
Jess chuckled quietly to herself. "Cloud, that was really great."
A voice recording echoed in over the passenger car's radio. "Now leaving Eighth District, we will be arriving at the Fourth District Station in a few minutes. All departing passengers please have your ID cards ready. Final stop of the day will be at the Graveyard Station, Seventh District Slumps. Expected time of arrival at the Graveyard Station will be 12:45 night, Midnight City Time. Thank you for choosing the Midnight City Transport Rail, and have a nice ride."
Jess stood up and walked over to Cloud at the back of the car, who shut the rear door with a hind leg. She sat down near a terminal. "Cloud, wanna see this?"
"What is it?" Cloud asked.
A railroad map of Midnight City, as it might appear from the a bird's-eye view, appeared on the terminal screen near Jess. "It's a scale map of the City. See, here we are, passing through the Sixth District hub . . . ." Jess pointed to a blinking dot on the monitor, then traced a path spiraling around the displayed map. "The train will be stopping at the Fourth District station in a few minutes. After that is the ID checkpoint on the way down," -- Jess tapped a small red dot on the monitor -- "and once we're clear of that, it's several laps around the City's central support pillar, and then we're home free."
"Home...," Cloud muttered. Through many years of wandering, he had nearly forgotten what a word like that meant. Once, long ago, he too had a home. But it was as gone as the burning Refractor far above them, incinerated in the fires of tragedy and buried with the sands of time.
"Yeah. Did you know?" Jess asked, pointing to an item of trivia running by the monitor on an electronic line of ticker-tape. "They say that each District used to be a separate village, each with a different name. Midnight City used to be just a conglomeration of individual towns. Now, though...," Jess sighed, with a touch of despair. "No one remembers the names anymore. It's just 'First District', 'Second' District, Third, so on and so forth, for all eight of them. And then there's the Refractors that they built, one for each District. Like the Eighth District Refractor, (you know, the one we took out), which is on the City's north end. You saw how only a few lights were still on? I imagine we blacked out the whole of the Eighth District in doing that...."
Jess sighed again, this time in relief. "Fortunately these trains run on their own power supplies. Even if we took out all of the City's generators, it doesn't affect the railroads in the slightest."
Gravity seemed to lurch forwards as the train slowed to a stop and the intercom chimed in. "The time is now... Twelve, Thirty-Five, night, City Standard Time. We are now arriving at Fourth District Station. All authorized passengers please have your ID cards ready for disembarking. Arriving passengers, our next and final stop for the night will be at the Graveyard Station in the Seventh District Slumps. The expected time of arrival at Graveyard Station will be 12:45, night, City Standard time. Thank you for choosing the Midnight City Transport Rail, and have a nice ride."
For about a minute only the sounds of several doors opening and closing could be heard, accompanied by an occasional shuffle of hooves as passengers in other cars entered the train while others left for the Upper Fourth District. Then the left-side doors on their car, the last car of the train, opened, with two Rin Sha guards in red uniforms looking around. "Are there any authorized departing passengers? No?"
Silence answered the guard, to his apparent relief, as he and his comrade stepped out and waved authorized passengers on board. There were few at this time of night; some running errands for official business, others looking to head home. In total a group of three earth ponies boarded the train and chose seats near the front of the car. Then the station guards outside slid the doors shut, and with a chime the train's recorded intercom chimed on again.
"Now departing for Graveyard Station," began the intercom. "Expected time of arrival is 12:45 night, City Standard Time. Thank you for choosing the Midnight City Transport Rail, and have a nice ride."
The overhead handlestraps swung backwards as the cars shuddered and the train began accelerating from the Fourth District Station. As they entered a railroad tunnel descending towards ground level, they passed into a corridor lit only by red, emergency-style lights, which appeared to strobe past the windows. Everything fell silent.
"Ah, the checkpoint," Jess said. "You still got your ID card on you, right Cloud?"
Jess nodded back. "Our ID's may be fake but, without them they'd pull this train over in a wink and look for any suspicious ponies on board...."
"Like us," Cloud said.
Jess nodded. "Yeah."
Soon the last of the red lights blinked past the windows, as normal lighting resumed through the tunnel.
Jess sighed in relief. "We're finally in the clear. A few laps around the central pillar and we'll be home free...." Jess sighed.
Berett leaned out to look outside the window, which offered them a view of scaffolding and metalworks, beyond which they could see various maintenance catwalks and lights shining from the underside of Midnight City's great upper plate. "Look at it," Berett offered in a bit of smalltalk. "We could almost see the horizon out there. That is, if it weren't for all the damned smog...."
"...And the upper plate," Jess added. "It casts quite a shadow, even in the daytime. Sunlight can't reach down here, not even at dawn or dusk."
"The floating citadel...," Cloud mused, looking up and out the window as their train continued its course downwards, offering them a continually improving view of the Plate's black underside. "I don't care how many trains we ride. It's pretty unsettling, to see it so high up...."
" 'Unsettling' ?" Berett mused. "Never thought I'd hear a word like that from you...! If it weren't for that goddamned Pizza up there, we might actually get to see a Sky down here. And we'd have clean air, not all that smoke and dirt we get because of them up on the plate!"
"Sad that they don't let just all the ponies live on the Plate. At least the air would be cleaner...."
"You'd think?" Berett scoffed back. "Yeah. But all the Rin Sha care about is the silver they comb their hair with. They don't give coppers to nothin' else!"
Berett lowered his voice back to a conversational tone. "Besides, I don' think it'd make much of a difference anyway. They're always blamin' us in the Slumps for their troubles. But it's their Refractors causing the real problems, what with drainin' the Land an' all....
"And, well...," Berett continued. "I guess a bunch of us just like livin' down on ol firm ground, not some phony flyin' pizza. Don't matter how much garbage they dump down on us, it's our Land and we gotta stay there!"
Almost every pony in the car, even those not part of their rebel group, gave a small cheer in response.
"Yeah...," Jess mused. "I've yet to hear any pony say they live in the Slumps because they want to. It's always because they have to. Like this train: it only goes where it must; only where its rails take it."
The train's intercom piped up again. "The time is now... Twelve, Forty-Two, night, City Standard Time. We will be arriving at the Graveyard Station shortly. Thank you for riding the Midnight City Transport Rail, and we hope to serve you again tomorrow."
Silence ruled the rest of the journey as the Slumps ascended into view, and as th etrain approached and slowed down for the station. In another minute and two, the train hissed as it slowed to a stop outside its station. One by one, an outside Rin Sha station guard opened the doors on each car, leaving them open for ponies to file out through.
Berett, Cloud, and the rest were the last ponies out of the train, and the red-uniformed guard -- a pony who himself lived in the Slumps, and was reasonably sympathetic to their plight -- shut the train doors behind them. He watched silently as the ponies filtered out in two directions, to the east and west, towards wherever they needed to be.
Berett ran off of the station dock, to a distance of about twenty paces, then summoned his comrades around him. "C'mere and lissen up!"
Cloud, Biggs, Jess and Wedge all galloped off of the platform towards Berett.
"That mission was a success," Berett announced as eagerly as he could without raising his voice above a conersational volume. "But don't none of ya be scared of that explosion. We'll plan for another tomorrow, so be expectin' a second one just like it! Now let's scram and rendezvous back at the hideout, hear?"
The three comrades of Biggs, Jess, and Wedge answered in consent to Berett's orders and then galloped off towards the west, in the direction of their home. Berett followed behind after a few paces, while Cloud waited behind for a moment, looking back up at the plate. The great upper Plate of Midnight City. Black as a night sky, even during the daytime, with lights interspersed through the underside appearing like stars from this distance. Down in the Slumps they saw neither day or night, and perhaps in some way, the lights twinkling down from above really were the stars. Looking up at the fake sky above them, Cloud mourned how pale it was in comparison to the real thing. Maybe, someday, they would once again see the real, true sky....
Unicorns are very rare in this world, in fact it's fair to assume that the flower-selling mare is the only unicorn that anyone knows of.