The Dog in the Nighttime
As Soarin had said, the passengers were waiting in the kitchen. All three mares were facing the bridge expectantly, so as Dash hovered at the top of the stairs from the cargo bay, she took the opportunity to size them up before she entered the room.
One was a short, beige Earth pony with a chocolate-colored mane. Her blue overalls were clean, but they had so many old, ground-in stains that they were practically brown. A wrench stuck out of her pocket, and a battered tool chest sat on the floor next to her. Nothing unusual about a working class mare looking for cheap transport. The other two made for a far more interesting sight.
Not too many zebras had made the Journey from Equus. Those that had mainly stayed on Savannah and didn’t tend to travel much. Still, the mare in the middle couldn’t have been anything else. Dark gray stripes crossed her light gray coat, and a stylized spiral sun marked her flank. She sat with a thin staff balanced across her tightly folded hindlegs, seemingly unconcerned by her surroundings. Dash thought the position looked uncomfortable, but who knew with Zebras?
The last mare was a purple unicorn. Her dress was practical but expensive, and it hid her cutie mark completely. A pair of dark shades concealed her eyes, and a careful inspection of her short, pink mane revealed the slight shimmer that indicated a glamour. Dash felt like whistling at that. Away from the ambient magic field of a planet or Alicorn-class ship, a unicorn only had their own personal reserves to fuel their magic. So what was a rich, powerful unicorn in disguise doing on a run-down bulk transport like Tranquility?
Dash stepped into the kitchen and cleared her throat noisily. The unicorn jumped in surprise, and the earth pony dropped the wrench she’d been fiddling with. Only the zebra seemed unaffected. “Hello, and welcome to Tranquility. I’m Rainbow Dash, the Captain. Sorry I couldn’t be here earlier, but I had to load some important cargo for our trip to Whitetail. So, let’s have some introductions.” She gave them her best grin, open, inviting, and confident.
“It seems we finally meet our host, the pony I wished to see the most,” the zebra said in a shifting, lilting cadence as she unfolded her legs and rose. She turned to face Dash and gave a small bow. “But for the question of my name, Zecora is that which I claim.”
Zecora wore nothing but three pieces of jewelry, all of them depicting an eight-rayed sun. Two of the suns were stud earrings, made of cheap brass but polished to gleaming. The third, a smooth, yellow-white stone, hung from an old length of twine around her throat. Dash grunted in surprise. A Solar Sister, here? She gave a polite nod. “Nice to meet you, Zecora. You’ve got business on Whitetail?”
Zecora shook her head and broke into a cryptic smile. “I chose your ship not for her destination, but for her mechanics's admiration. Even a blind pony could see the way she loves Tranquility.”
Moonbanished sun witch, Dash thought, no longer trying to hide her expression. The Solar Sisters did a lot of good around the system, but they got preachy darned fast. There weren’t many things more annoying than a rhyming lecture. Besides, Dash had learned a long time ago that Harmony didn’t really exist out here. Ponies had left that back in Equestria. “You?” she asked, nodding to the earth pony.
“I’m Toolbelt. I got a job offer in Whitetail and just needed a cheap ticket,” she said with a shrug. “Nothing special about my story.”
“You may call me Star Glimmer,” the unicorn said. She looked straight at Dash, but the dark shades masked her eyes and the rest of her expression remained carefully neutral. “I’m an assistant professor from Hackney University. I’m traveling with my equipment to research some natural magic phenomena on Whitetail.”
Everybody in the room, except Zecora, stared at her. Hackney wasn’t a major city by any stretch, but it was the largest on Boaros, and anyone involved in the university had to be upper crust. “And you chose my ship because…” Dash trailed off in disbelief.
Star Glimmer blushed, proving she wasn’t as emotionless as she acted. “I’m an assistant professor, and the University isn’t exactly generous with its grants. I’ve got to cut corners somewhere.”
That seemed more reasonable. Dash had never seen any organization that was in the habit of handing out large sums of bits if they didn’t have to. Still, that didn’t explain the glamour and the dress. Star Glimmer – if that was really even her name – was hiding something. “Great,” Dash said with a smile. “Okay, intros over. Let me lay down some ground rules. Meals are here in the kitchen at 8:00, 13:00, and 19:00. Just basic fare – pressed hay, nutrient supplements, oatmeal, and some rice dishes for variety. Also, you have to stay in your quarters, the kitchen, or the lounge behind me. You’ll–”
“But my equipment!” Star Glimmer interrupted in mild panic. She shuffled nervously as Dash glared at her. Somewhere in the background, Dash heard Gilda chuckle even though the griffin tried to muffle it.
“As I was saying,” Dash continued in a stern tone of voice. “You’ll get in the crew's way if you wander all over the ship. We’ll take you down to get whatever you need in a couple minutes. If you want something later let one of us know, and we'll take you back.”
“But wouldn’t that inconvenience them more than if we went alone?” Star Glimmer asked. Dash was fast running out patience with this mare.
“No,” she said coldly. “Because I won’t have anybody running back and forth. Take what you need to your quarters, including any of your ‘equipment’ that needs a lot of upkeep.” Star Glimmer flinched, and Dash noted the reaction with interest. Oh, she’s definitely hiding something, and she’s not used to doing it, either. She wasn’t bad – the researcher story made sense and was hard to disprove – but Miss ‘Star Glimmer’ wasn’t good enough to fool anyone looking hard. “We’ll be making planetfall, or moonfall in this case, in three days’ time. Any questions?”
Toolbelt coughed, and Star Glimmer trailed one hoof sullenly across the floor. “Good. Then you can follow me back to the cargo hold now and we’ll get whatever you need for the trip,” Dash said.
She turned around and just barely saw the tip of a tawny tail before Gilda made herself scarce. By the time Dash turned the corner, she was nowhere to be seen. Dash grunted in annoyance. Gilda always stalked around like that when she was in a bad mood. It was probably a predator thing.
The whole group trooped down the the cargo hold, and Dash was struck again with how many crates Star Glimmer had. There were at least half a dozen, and that wasn’t even counting her large suitcase and smaller, professional looking briefcase. Both of those were also plain, but extremely well made. The crates were standard cargo movers, though. Glimmer darted over to her precious luggage while Dash waited on the catwalk that overlooked the cargo hold, keeping an eye on all of her passengers.
Dash smelled her before she saw her. She was wearing a new scent, but nobody else on board bothered with perfume. Her heart began to race, but Captain Dash fought not to show it. She had to play it cool, act like it was no big deal. “Good afternoon, Miss Rarity. Aren’t you just pretty as a plum blossom today?” That was perfect. I’ll just leave it there and everything will be– “How’s the whoring?” Sunscorch it.
Dash would’ve called Rarity beautiful, except that ‘beautiful’ didn’t come close to doing her justice. You’d need words like ‘amazing’, ‘gorgeous’, and ‘stunning’ to even start describing her. Not that Dash ever did any describing. She wasn’t short of confidence; it was just that all the nice things in her head got all snarled up and pointy before they made it to her mouth. Somehow, just being near Rarity set Dash’s insides tumbling like she was caught in a tornado. She hated that out-of-control feeling, but she hadn't made any move to get the Companion off her ship. It had been that way for the better part of a year, and didn’t show any signs of changing.
“Thank you, Captain,” Rarity said in a tone that sent chills down Dash’s spine. She was angry, no doubt about that, and her silky voice just barely hid the razor blades underneath. “I’ve had a number of satisfied customers here lately. It had been a while since a registered Companion visited Boaros. And how is your thieving and smuggling?”
“Could you keep your voice down?” Dash hissed. “I’ve got passengers just twenty feet away.”
“Of course, far be it from me to discuss private business in front of other ponies.” Rarity’s eyes slid over to Dash just in time to catch her wince. Rarity smirked. She had scored a point in that exchange. She usually did when they bantered. “Do you think you could manage introductions?”
Why? None of them can afford your price. That comment, at least, Dash was able to bury. “Why not? I’d like to see how the Solar Sister reacts.”
“With dignity, no doubt. Not everyone is as unfamiliar to the concept as you.” That could have been another scathing remark, but Rarity delivered in an almost playfully teasing tone. Captain Dash's cheeks heated up, but she didn’t blush. She was too cool for that.
Instead, she glanced around, looking for her passengers. Toolbelt had already left, it appeared. She probably didn’t have much baggage with her. Easier and cheaper to sell your furniture and buy new once you arrived than to ship it between planets. Zecora was busy doing something with her canvas duffel and a pair of small crates sitting at her hooves. Star Glimmer seemed to be finished, though she kept shooting worried looks at her mountain of luggage. Dash steered towards her.
“Ahem.” Star Glimmer jumped again as Dash cleared her throat. Dash gave another confident smile, pretending not to notice her passenger’s guilty reaction. “Miss Glimmer, I’d like to introduce you to Miss Rarity.”
Star Glimmer tried to maintain a neutral expression, but the lines around her mouth tightened into the shadow of a frown. Rarity’s dress, like most of her clothing, was an airy silk piece, but it wasn't indecent. Whatever the reason behind her emotion, Star Glimmer smoothed it away and extended a hoof politely. “A pleasure to meet you.”
“The pleasure is mine,” Rarity said. Her eyes sparkled with interest, studying the lines and folds of Glimmer’s dress. A small pout flashed across her face, as she found something wrong with the other mare’s outfit. Dash rolled her eyes, careful not to let Rarity see the reaction. “I like the dress, darling, but the sunglasses simply do not suit your ensemble.”
“Thanks for the advice.” Glimmer scowled, making no move to take them off. She turned slightly to Dash. “Is she another member of your crew?”
Rarity tittered softly at that. “Hardly. I’m a registered Companion. I rent one of Captain Dash’s shuttles, as my services are in high demand here on the Outer Rim. Tranquility takes me where I need to go without bankrupting me.” Dash snorted at that. She knew the kind of money Rarity made, and she could have rented on any number of finer ships. All that money had to be going to something, though.
“Ah,” Glimmer replied, a faint blush touching her cheeks. “Well… I’m going to get settled in. It was nice meeting you.”
“Likewise,” Rarity said with an elegant curtsy, which Glimmer tried and failed to duplicate. She hurried off, her briefcase clenched tightly in her aura.
“What a curious mare,” Rarity said, once Glimmer was out of earshot.
“I’d have said suspicious, but they're pretty much the same thing.”
“Be that as it may,” Rarity scolded gently. “I hope you don’t plan on acting upon any ill-founded ‘suspicions’. There are certain obligations one has to a client, and she is yours.”
Dash held up both forehooves in mock surrender. “As her Highness decrees, I can only obey. You’ve certainly had more experience ‘obliging’ clients than I have.”
“Oh, hush,” Rarity said, her eyes sparkling again as she turned towards the last passenger still in the cargo hold. She hummed to herself, her mind clearly on Zecora and not their discussion. For some reason Dash felt like glaring at the cryptic, rhyming, know-it-all zebra.
Still, she had to make introductions. “Sister Zecora, this is Miss Rarity, a registered Companion and valued business associate.”
Rarity shot Dash an unreadable look before giving Zecora a smile and a closer examination than she had used on Glimmer. “It is an honor to meet you Sister... Zecora? Am I pronouncing that correctly?” At a nod, she continued. “Wonderful. I would love to chat with you before dinner if you have the time. The crew certainly know their jobs, but I rarely get the chance to discuss philosophical or political matters with anyone on board.”
“Hey, now,” Dash interjected, faking a hurt look. “I’m always willing to discuss politics with you.”
Rarity rolled her eyes and let out her breath in a huff. “Yes, but no matter what the problem is, you respond with, and I quote, ‘shoot the politicians’.”
“You say that like it’s a bad thing.”
Zecora smiled sagely, ignoring the byplay. “I gladly welcome your kind invitation, Mistress Rarity, but please explain the reason for my sudden popularity. While many of your peers prefer to shun my sisterhood and me, I find that you are hardly able to contain your look of glee. ”
Dash chuckled as Rarity blushed shyly. Most of the time, it was difficult to see behind her polite mask, but now and then her hobby got the better of her.
“I must admit that my intentions were not solely for conversation,” Rarity said. “I had hoped I might get the chance to... draw you.”
Zecora blinked and cocked her head in confusion. Dash chuckled again earning her a haughty look from the Companion. Rarity turned back to Zecora with a more apologetic expression. “I … dabble in art, specifically with charcoal and pencils. I’ve never had the chance to sketch a zebra before, and I was perhaps a bit caught up in the opportunity.”
Zecora nodded. “A pony’s passion always shows, so for your art I’ll gladly pose.” Then she shifted her attention to Dash, and the Captain met her teal-colored eyes. “I've something here that should appeal: an addition to our nightly meal. I bring you fruit grown at my abbey. A gift, I hope, that's not too shabby.” She nudged one of the small crates towards Dash with one of her hooves.
Now that she was paying attention, Dash could detect the subtle aroma of fresh fruit and vegetables coming from the box. Her mouth watered, mostly due to one scent in particular, but all of it smelled delicious. “You might just be my favorite passenger ever. I’ve gotta ask, are those plums I smell? And could I snag one before dinner?” Dash was willing to ask politely to start, but one way or another she was getting one of those fruits.
Zecora waved her hoof of the box, deftly flipping it open, and bowed ever so slightly. “I have brought such fruits, indeed, and they are yours. Feel free to feed.”
Dash nodded, hungrily searching for the juiciest of the beautiful, purple fruits. They were a good stock, every one healthy-looking. You couldn’t always count on that out here on the Rim. She selected one, tossing it into the air with one wing and catching it with the other. “Thanks,” she said, and strutted off to leave Rarity and the Sister to their art discussion.
Dash waited until she was out of sight to taste her prize. Just firm enough, with a burst of juice as her teeth pierced the skin. A slight tang came with the sweetness, making Dash give a tiny shudder. She checked to make sure nobody had seen that, then went back to eating. Fresh fruit was expensive out here, and whatever you found usually wasn't all that great. This plum was delicious. It didn’t taste like home – nothing ever tasted like home – but it was close enough.
Dinner was a noisier affair than usual. Between the three extra ponies and the addition of real food to the menu, everyone was in a talkative mood. Even Gilda seemed to have forgotten how Dash had chewed her out earlier in the day.
Zecora had been a source of interesting stories, even more impressive as she managed to deliver them all in rhyme. Toolbelt had offered a couple minor tales of her own, and the rest of the crew had gladly responded.
Applejack told about her life on her family’s apple farm before the war. Gilda needed a couple of glares when she got too close to describing some the business their ship actually did, and Rarity shared a few polite anecdotes from the parties she’d attended with upper class ponies.
“Your turn, Fluttershy,” Applejack said.
“What about me?” Soarin complained. “I’ve got tons of great stories. A few of them are even fit to be told in mixed company.”
“You’ll go after her and be happy for it,” Applejack said, with mock sternness. “Let’s hear a story from the best mechanic on the Rim.”
“You’ve got a funny way of pronouncing ‘the entire ‘Verse’,” Dash replied. That got a round of chuckles and set Fluttershy to blushing.
“That’s sweet, Dash, but I’m not that good. I just have a feel for Tranquility.” She set to putting away the bits of food nobody had eaten. There was still a gorgeous pile of fruit left and that would make for a tasty breakfast.
“Like Tartarus, you aren’t,” Dash said, snagging one last grape before Fluttershy put them in a container. “Tell everybody about one of the times you saved the ship from almost certain doom.”
She blushed even deeper, but nodded and sat back down. “W-well, there was the time that the main magnetic bearing went out of whack and caused the entire engine to overheat.” She nodded to Toolbelt. “You know how these old ships can get sometimes.”
“Right, of course,” Toolbelt said with a quick nod. “So, how did you deal with it?”
Fluttershy shrugged. “Nothing special, really. I just had to temporarily re-route the cooling system through ship’s wastewater plumbing to reduce the heat so it wouldn’t be too hot while I was working. Of course, I couldn’t turn it off or the quench would have snapped that bearing in half, and it wasn’t like we had a spare. The hard part was re-aligning the pressure couplings, but once that was done I just needed to suit up and un-jam the rotor from the outside.” She clammed up again for a second as though embarrassed by how much she had said. Then she shyly looked at Toolbelt. “But I’m sure you would’ve handled it better.”
Toolbelt laughed uneasily and rubbed the back of her neck. “Oh, no, I’d probably do the same thing you did. That seems about the only option in that situation.”
Fluttershy nodded, and went back to getting things put away. That girl is too modest for her own good, Dash thought. What she wasn’t mentioning was that the ‘overheating’ had been almost more than the life support system could cope with. She had just about cooked herself getting that engine fixed, then jumped in a suit and risked the hot rotor melting through it to finish the job. Fluttershy could have made herself a boatload of money if she’d been willing to work anywhere else. Not that Dash blamed her for being attached to Tranquility. This ship was all she had since they’d found her.
“Great story, little ‘Shy,” Soarin said. “But now everyone must prepare themselves for my story, a tale of riveting comedy and unparalleled nonsense. You’ve paid for the whole seat, but you’ll only need the edge!”
“Get on with it,” Gilda heckled. “And don’t tell that moonbanished garden gnome story again, we’ve heard that one at least a dozen times.”
The table chuckled as Soarin ignored her and launched into his tale. As he started gesturing with his hooves, Dash helped Fluttershy clear the table while watching the alleged ‘assistant professor’ from the corner of her eye. It hadn’t escaped Dash’s notice that Star Glimmer, though polite and seemingly cheerful, hadn’t volunteered any stories. In fact, Dash thought she could count the number of times the unicorn had spoken at dinner on her hooves.
“– and at this point we had convinced her that sprouting a mustache overnight was entirely natural,” Soarin said, miming a growth of facial hair at least twice the size as the last time he told this story. “Now, she had shaved it off, but we were at this party with a lot of very important ponies. Well, being an arrogant so-and-so, this mare barged in on the mayor’s conversation. She told him all about her rare case of Leichtgläubig Syndrome. He almost choked, he was laughing so hard.” The whole table sat quietly, an odd chuckle here or there interrupting the silence as they waited for the punchline. “I swear on my mother’s best pie recipe, she turned redder than an apple and demanded to know why he was laughing. That’s when he told her that ‘leichtgläubig’ was Griffin for ‘gullible’!” The whole table laughed at that, and even though this had to be the fourth or fifth time Dash had heard it, she chuckled along with them.
“All right,” Dash said, her chair groaning as she stood up. “The food’s gone, and it's Applejack's turn to do the dishes.”
“Sure thing, Captain,” she replied.
“As for the rest,” she turned towards her passengers. “The crew is going to have a meeting on the bridge, then retire for the evening. The lights will be off, and it would be best if everyone returned to their quarters. I can’t tell you to sleep, but I don’t want anybody tripping over anything in the darkness. Does anyone need access to the cargo hold?” Silence answered her. “Okay, then. If you want breakfast hot, be on time, and if you’re fine with something cold, you’ve got all morning. Good night, and pleasant dreams.”
They murmured their good nights. Zecora didn’t offer to pray, which was a relief. Dash found herself kind of liking the mare and didn’t want to turn her down. All three trooped down the stairs to the lower deck, where the passengers’ quarters waited. Dash made sure they were gone before she headed to the bridge.
Soarin sat in the pilot’s chair. Scattered around his console were framed pictures of him, his wife and a truly bizarre number of pies. At least eight pictures of various desserts decorated his station, and that didn’t include the massive photo album full of pies resting in one of the drawers that should have held flight manuals.
Gilda lurked in the corner, sharpening her claws with her newest knife. She’d eventually lose interest, but while it was new, she was going to use it at any excuse.
Fluttershy flittered here and there, her overalls messy, but her mane mysteriously clean. She flashed a warm smile at Dash, still tinged by a bit of sheepishness. Dash almost rolled her eyes. The money Fluttershy had spent on Tranquility’s new part was ground beneath the wind.
Rarity was there for some reason, too. Dash had mixed feelings about that. It took a moment, but annoyed won out. “I’m pretty sure I said this meeting was for the crew.”
“And I’m ‘pretty sure’ you are going to be discussing your passengers, as Soarin and Fluttershy do all the work of running the ship,” Rarity retorted.
Soarin laughed and gestured to his chair. “I do a lot more sitting than ‘running’. You’d be looking at our little ‘Shy for anything active.”
“Oh, everybody does their part. All you have to do is ask nicely,” Fluttershy said, brushing aside her bangs to reveal a shy smile. Dash chuckled. There wasn’t anyone on board that could refuse when she said ‘please’ and smiled.
As amusing a conversation as that could lead to, Dash put her hoof down. This was the time for business. “Fine, Rarity can sit in for now, but we aren’t making a habit of it. Point being, our passengers. What does everyone think of them?”
“That unicorn’s lying. So’s the earth pony. Probably the zebra, too,” Gilda said, sheathing her knife and leaning forward intently.
“You think everybody lies to us,” Dash replied. Though, she looked to be on the money with Glimmer.
Gilda shrugged. “Only ‘cause everybody does. When’s the last time we got involved in anything honest?” She only got silence in response, which made her snicker.
Dash shook her head. “Okay, so we’ve got Gilda’s opinion. What about you, Fluttershy? The way that Sister was talking, it sounded like you and her had a chat.”
Fluttershy blushed and began to play her hair. “No, with Soarin there, I managed to talk to the parts dealer, but I didn’t say a word to anyone else.”
Frowning, Dash reviewed the zebra’s introduction in her head. “You sure? From what she said, the only reason she chose our ship was because you love the old girl.”
“She probably overheard when we were coming back from the dealer’s,” Soarin offered. “Little ‘Shy was so excited about her new gizmo, she came close to talking my ears off.”
Fluttershy’s face turned rosy red as she blushed more. “Sorry, I can be such a chatterbox sometimes. But it was a really good price. I know it was expensive, but Tranquility’s coil is really old and it’s such a vital piece. If we lost that, we’d be dead in the air.” Everyone gave an involuntary shudder. If you were lucky, another ship would find you and perform a rescue, but there wasn’t much luck to be had out in the black.
“Next time, check with me first. I don’t mind spending the bits, but I don’t like surprises.” Fluttershy nodded earnestly. “Otherwise, don’t worry about it, little ‘Shy. We’ll get enough from this job to make up for it,” Dash said. “So what do you think of our passengers after seeing them at dinner?”
Fluttershy hesitated. “They all seem nice. Though, if I had to say, I think Zecora and Star Glimmer are hiding something from us. Not necessarily something bad, but still.”
“I dunno about the zebra; she seemed on the level,” Soarin added. “But here’s something interesting about Star Glimmer. She paid the first fare I quoted her. Didn’t even try to haggle me down. Then she wanted everything loaded into the ship and out of sight as fast as possible. That doesn’t exactly sound like a young researcher struggling to make her grant money stretch.”
“After speaking with her, I believe Zecora’s … mystique to be intentional.” Rarity paused, considering her words carefully. “She seeks to create an air of cryptic wisdom, which makes me believe she is a missionary of sorts: a traveling Sister hoping to save lost souls. Perhaps I’m reading a bit much into it, but that remains the impression I get of her. As for Star Glimmer, she is afraid.”
“What she’s afraid of is the question,” Dash cut in.
Rarity pursed her lips. “It’s hard to say. She was definitely wary of me, even before she learned of my occupation.” Gilda snickered again, but the rest of crew ignored it. “The concealment and silence coupled with her sudden starts all indicate that she’s hiding something.”
“I think we’re all on the same page with that, sugarcube,” Applejack said. She ducked through the low door to the bridge and nodded to Dash. “Dishes’re done, Captain, and I’ve been keeping an ear on the conversation.”
“That’s why I left the door open. So, your thoughts?”
“Nothing special ‘bout Toolbelt that I can see, and like my husband there says, I’m plum not sure on Zecora. But I can only figure two possibilities for Miss Glimmer. One: She’s carryin’ something she shouldn’t in those crates. Might be somethin’ illegal, might be somethin’ stolen, or it might be both. Two: She’s runnin’ from somepony. Packed up everything she had and don’t want nopony to know where she’s gone.” Applejack settled into Soarin’s chair with him. The seat was just big enough for two, and he comfortably draped his foreleg around her shoulders, pulling her close.
“That was about what I thought. Anybody got any other ideas?” Nobody said anything.
Dash snorted. “If she’s just running from somebody, there ain’t nothing wrong with that. The less questions we ask there, the better.” She grinned wolfishly. “And if she’s running from the lawkeepers, the more power to her. But if she’s using us to smuggle, I’ve got a problem with that. Nobody smuggles anything on my ship.” Applejack raised an eyebrow. Soarin raised his foreleg, pretending to be a confused student. Rarity scoffed softly.
“Unless they cut me in on the deal,” Dash finished. That bought a few chuckles.
“That’s good ‘n all,” Applejack said, “but how do we know which it is? I don’t see that interrogation going well. Not if she has enough magic to waste on a glamour out in the black.” Fluttershy, Soarin, and Gilda all looked surprised at that news, but Dash and Rarity were nodding.
“True. That’s one of the reasons I told none of them to enter the cargo hold without us.” Dash’s eyes slid over to Gilda. “How would you feel about making a trip to the cargo hold later this evening and checking out Miss Glimmer’s luggage? If she’s on the level, no harm, no foul. But if she’s smuggling something, we can press her for a cut since we’re taking part of the risk.”
“Nothing would make me happier, Captain,” Gilda said with a mercenary grin.
“Good,” Dash replied. “Wait ‘til everyone is asleep, and keep quiet. And don’t take anything that ain’t yours.”
“Do I look like a thief?” Gilda asked. Everybody stared at her as she realized what she’d just said. “Sunscorch it, you know what I mean.”
“Yeah, but we aren’t too sure that you do,” Soarin joked.
Gilda bristled at that, some of her feathers rising threateningly. “I’ll be in my bunk, and since I’m staying up half the night, I’m sleeping in come morning.”
“Fine,” Dash said. “Do it right, and you can sleep in as long as you like. Nobody’s going anywhere in a hurry.”
It was past midnight. Gilda had whiled away the hours sharpening and admiring her knife. That stupid unicorn dweeb hadn’t known scat about proper knife care. Yeah, the spells on it made it stay sharp longer, but ‘longer’ didn’t mean ‘forever’. Besides, the knife needed to be as sharp as possible to get full use out of the spells woven into it. With the work Gilda had done, this beautiful little piece of steel would slice through a unicorn’s shield without even slowing down. Even most armor couldn’t stop a thrust from a knife like this. Of course, being a griffin, Gilda could only use it for close combat. But it wasn’t like that was something she’d never been through.
She glanced up, grunting as she checked the clock. It was time to move. She didn’t like leaving her guns behind, but she understood the necessity. She was still packing at least three knives, though. Wasn’t a chance in this ‘Verse she’d go on any mission unarmed. A crowbar, hammer and some nails completed her gear.
Gilda turned the light off and quietly opened the door of her room. She stepped out, listening for any movement. She had the best night vision on board, barring unicorn magic, but hearing was the best sense to use in darkness. The only noises were the phantom groans of an old ship. Soft red lights lined the way to the cockpit, but Gilda crept through the starlit galley and turned down a pitch-black staircase instead. She crept along, putting more weight on the pads of her hind legs than her claws. Halfway down the stairs Gilda paused and listened again.
Still nothing. Good.
She continued down, turning right past the empty infirmary, and paused again to listen and watch. The passengers’ quarters were dark and silent, except for some light snoring from one of them. Gilda nodded to herself and crept back through the common area, confident she wouldn’t be interrupted. The cargo hold’s door was sound-proof, and just in case she had wrapped the hammer’s head in rags to muffle the noise when she nailed the lid back on the crate.
The door to the cargo hold creaked a little as it opened. Gilda waited and listened, but heard nothing. She softly shut the door behind her and locked it. She froze again, then grinned. Nothing too hard. One crate later, the whole crew would be a few bits richer. Even if ‘Glimmer’ wasn’t smuggling, the Captain should charge something for staying silent when somebody asked questions about where she had gone. Unless she was on the lam. Captain Dash would lie to the authorities just on principle.
Gilda’s grin slipped as she approached the corner of the room that had Glimmer’s stuff. Were the shadows playing tricks on her or…
Nope, all of the crates had already been busted wide open. Gilda felt cold sweat pop out on her brow. The Captain was gonna have a hard time believing that she hadn’t done this. For a moment, Gilda wondered if this was Soarin’s idea of a joke, but she discarded the notion just as quickly. He wasn’t dumb enough to risk Dash’s wrath like that. Which meant that one of the passengers had more interest in these crates than they had pretended. Somebody had been looking for something, and they hadn’t minded tearing apart every crate until they found it. Gilda’s mind leapt to the zebra, but that earth pony had kept a low profile too. And she probably had the strength to wreck one easier than a zebra. Or were zebras as strong as earth ponies? For once, Gilda wished she had finished school.
Cautiously, Gilda drew her knife, then waited and listened again. No sound but the low, distant thrum of the engine. Gilda stalked around the room, peering into each dark corner and behind every crate. She didn’t find anyone or anything. Whoever did this was already long gone.
Might as well finish what I came for, she thought. She choose one crate with a hole in the side almost big enough to climb through. Gilda just stuck her head in and let her eyes adjust. She didn’t have to wait long, but what she saw only confused her more. The crate was full of little medicine bottles and other bits of doctor-junk. Gilda saw a thing for listening to heartbeats, a cuff for measuring blood pressure, and some of those wooden tongue depressors. The medicine bottles looked like the contents of a small drug store – everything from cough syrup to headache pills. There were prescription drugs, too. A few of them Gilda recognized, with labels like ‘morphine’ and ‘penicillin’. The rest were just a jumble of unpronounceable syllables. Gilda was pretty sure it was illegal for Glimmer to have some of these, but the rest could be bought anywhere. This wasn’t any kind of smuggling she’d ever seen. Only one thing for it; tell Captain Dash and let her figure out what it meant.
The jab in her right shoulder was the first clue Gilda got that she wasn’t alone. There was a pressurized hiss as the injector made contact, and Gilda felt something cold and numbing hit her bloodstream. She yanked her head out of the crate and spun with a roar, slashing with her shining, new Confederation knife. Unfortunately, they weren’t dumb enough to stay in range, and that was the only move she got to make. Before she could spot her opponent, Gilda’s legs buckled and her knife fell from her claws. She hit the floor still fighting the effects of the whatever they had put in her.
“Nag,” she slurred. “C’mon, fight me like a warrior.” A vague outline of a pony stepped into her field of vision. Gilda strained to see who it was, but a dark fog was closing in from the edges of her vision.
“No thank you,” the pony said. Gilda tried to understand, but the words wouldn’t hold still long enough. They bounced and echoed inside her head without meaning as she slowly slipped into complete and total darkness.