Ten Little Buffalo
“Fluttershy!” Dash bellowed as she shot down the narrow hallway to the engine room.
Applejack thundered after her, and Soarin wasn’t far behind. Captain Dash flared her wings and barely caught herself from crashing into the tangled mess of machinery and wires that filled the engine room. It was a small room, nearly filled by the ship’s beating heart. Tool boxes stowed flush with the walls and what few parts they had in reserve were neatly sorted in one corner. There was nowhere to hide unless you crawled beneath the engine itself, and a quick glance confirmed that Fluttershy wasn’t there. Applejack and Soarin crowded together at the entrance, peering around for Fluttershy, but Dash could read fear in their eyes. There was precious little to give them a lead, either.
“She has to be somewhere on board,” Dash said flatly. “AJ, search the cargo hold. Soarin, check the bunks and kitchen. Open up any of the hiding spots big enough for a pony. I don’t care if the passengers are watching, we’re finding her.”
They both just nodded, their expressions serious. Soarin didn’t even crack a smile, and if that didn’t show how bad things were Dash didn’t know what would. AJ rushed off, brushing past Glimmer.
“Your mechanic’s gone?” she asked. Unless Dash was misreading her, that concern in her eyes was real. But so was the guilt. She might not have done it, but Glimmer knew it was her fault. Captain Dash agreed with her there.
“Looks like,” she grumbled, brushing past the unicorn, headed for the stairs. The clang of hooves on metal told Dash that Glimmer was trying to keep up. Dash pressed ahead, ready to bite her head off if she tried to speak again, but Glimmer stayed silent. A quick glance in the infirmary told her nothing had changed. Dash moved on to the passengers’ rooms. That was one of the only places they hadn’t checked yet. Two ponies and a griffin were missing, and none of the hatches had opened. That many bodies took up some serious room, especially when they were still living, and Captain Dash refused to think of them as anything else. Tranquility wasn’t that big of a ship. They had to be on board somewhere.
Star Glimmer looked like she wanted to say something when Dash yanked open Toolbelt’s door, but she kept her mouth shut. The room was bare, the bed unmade. Dash checked the shallow closet. Empty. It looked like that toolbox she kept lugging around was the only thing she’d brought with her.
Glimmer’s room was next, and it had a lot more in it than Toolbelt’s. The small desk was buried under sheets of paper, and there were more scattered everywhere around the room. Most of them were covered in small, fine writing, but more than a few were rough notes crowded with wild scribbling and some confusing designs. Dash didn’t understand a bit of it, but she didn’t miss the way Glimmer flushed and began to gather them magically.
“Paper?” Dash asked curiously. It wasn’t exactly luxury goods, but these days just about everything was done on crystals.
The flurry of papers organized themselves into a neat stack which Glimmer tucked into her briefcase. Glimmer shook her head. “Anything stored with magic can be found with magic. Paper files have to be accessed physically.” She was breathing a little hard, but that had been some impressive levitation. Especially considering all the magic she’d already done out here in the black. The mare was going to run out of fuel before too long if she kept wasting it like that.
Dash raised an eyebrow, but she had bigger potatoes to fry. Glimmer’s paperwork aside, the room was as empty as the first, and they didn’t keep any hidden compartments down in the passenger cabins. That would be a mess just waiting to happen. Captain Dash pressed on; time for the zebra’s room.
“Um… why did everypony react like that when they heard your mechanic was gone? You were really upset about the Companion, but all three of you took this really hard,” Glimmer said.
Zecora’s room was about as bare as Toolbelt’s, but Dash checked everywhere just in case. She chewed over Glimmer’s question as she did, then grunted. “Fluttershy’s had a hard life, and that’s all I’ll say about that. Somepony messes with her, we take it personally. The last guy who tried something sleazy with her got kicked off the ship.”
“That doesn’t sound so–”
“While we were in the black,” Dash finished flatly.
Glimmer shut her mouth with a snap and Captain Dash continued her search in silence. She’d checked everywhere in the room, but this one, unlike the other two, had a panel that gave access to the air vents. They weren’t really big enough to store a pony in, much less two ponies plus a muscular griffin, but Dash cracked it open anyway. Empty, of course. Nothing but shadows and rivets, and…
A tiny glass bottle.
“What’s this?” she mumbled, pulling it over with a hoof. She got it out in the light, and Glimmer let out a gasp.
“That’s one of my missing soporifics!”
Glimmer grabbed it in her aura and took a close look. “Sleep medications. Yes, this is definitely one of the missing vials. And it’s empty.”
It didn’t even take Dash a second to make the connections, and when she did, she got angry. No, scratch that, she’d been angry before. Now she was furious. She stormed out of the room, leaving Glimmer to follow in her wake. Her first instinct was to go up to the bridge and beat that striped backstabber’s face in until she told Dash what she had done with her ponies. Experience stopped her before she even reached the stairs. Charging headlong into a pony capable of taking Gilda in a straight fight wasn’t even remotely smart. She needed to stack the odds in her favor. A good race was fair, but a good fight was anything but.
Captain Dash veered off course and cracked open the door to the cargo hold. Applejack wasn’t anywhere in sight. Her guts clenched a little. “AJ?”she shouted. How fast was Zecora working? How many ponies had she already–
“You find her?” Applejack demanded, popping up from behind a crate on the other side of the hold.
Dash let out a relieved breath. “No, but I found some of Glimmer’s missing sleep meds in Zecora’s room.”
The brief but vicious profanity Applejack replied with made Star Glimmer’s ears fold back. Dash would’ve smiled if the situation wasn’t so serious. “My thoughts exactly. Last I saw, she was on the bridge. You carrying a weapon?”
Applejack looked insulted. “With passengers on board? I got two.” She was already rummaging through one of the many pockets built into her vest, drawing out a pistol brace and starting to strap it onto her foreleg. Pistol braces weren’t as dependable as a gun with a trigger, but you needed claws or unicorn magic for those. Anyone without either used the braces or a shoulder-mounted weapon. Or they got custom mods, like Patient’s ridiculous rifle, but nobody on Dash’s ship had the money to go in for one of those.
Captain Dash nodded appreciatively. “I could use one.” AJ arched an eyebrow, earning a scowl in response. “Well, excuse me for not bringing a gun to breakfast, Gilda.”
“Now you’re just bein’ hurtful,” Applejack said with a faint grin before tossing her the spare pistol bracer and some ammunition. “Plus, I’ve got my last flashbang and the dummy. How you wanna do this?” she asked.
They didn’t know for sure that Zecora was still on the bridge, but that seemed like the safest bet. No use wasting the flashbang if she wasn’t there. “Start with with the dummy grenade, I’ll follow up. If I don’t catch her off guard, I’ll at least draw her fire.” Captain Dash paused and turned to Glimmer. “You got much experience in a fight? A couple shield spells would be real useful right about now.”
‘N-no!” Glimmer said flushing deeply. “I specialized in other schools of magic. I do know a spell that cushions impacts for patients at risk of falls.”
Dash shook her head. “Nah, I doubt that would work too well at my speed. Never mind. Just stay in the kitchen and keep an eye out. I don’t want Zecora sneaking up on us. If she is up there and she gets past us somehow, don’t try to stop her unless you’re sure you can do it.”
The fear in Glimmer’s eyes said she wasn’t sure of any such thing. Dash snorted, but resisted rolling her eyes. Not everypony had been through a war. The Captain made a curt gesture, and a few flaps of her wings brought her to the catwalk above the hold. She listened for signs of movement from deeper in the ship while Applejack and Glimmer took the stairs behind her.
“So, why do you figure Zecora’s doing this?” Applejack asked quietly when she reached the top.
“Dunno, but something tells me that Glimmer’s ‘research’ has something do with it. Maybe she’s a mercenary that got hired to take back something Glimmer stole, or maybe there’s a hit out on Glimmer because she pissed off the wrong pony. Tartarus, for all I know Zecora’s one of the Confed’s Agents and Glimmer’s a wanted mare. Whoever she’s working for, Zecora’s gotta be a professional.” Dash wouldn’t have cared one way or the other if the two of them settled their problem off her ship, but Zecora had made the mistake of messing with her crew. Glimmer might need dealing with later, but the zebra nag was the problem right now. “Let’s keep moving.”
Dash wanted to bolt up the stairs, but she kept herself to a slow hover, pistol at the ready. No crazy zebras leapt down the stairs at her, and before long she was staring down the hallway to the bridge. Two quads of hoofsteps, one near silent and the other loud enough to make her wince, followed her up the stairs. The Captain ignored them both, focusing on the room at the end of the hall. She didn’t see Zecora, but there was plenty of the bridge hidden from her. It didn’t sound like there was anybody moving up there, though Dash could hear the sounds of Soarin still searching the crew cabins, which meant they were lucky enough that Zecora hadn’t grabbed him just yet. Dash gestured curtly, and AJ nodded. Glimmer just looked confused.
Applejack pulled a small metallic ball out of a vest pocket and bounced it carefully in her forehoof, judging the distance. She might have gotten her cutie mark for bucking apples, but grenades were about the same size and weight. She nodded to Dash, then threw the dummy grenade gently upwards. It arced into the air for half a second as she spun, then one of her hindlegs lashed out fast as a striking snake. The dummy grenade flew like it had been shot from a cannon, and Dash followed hot on its heels.
Captain Dash flicked the safety off and kept her foreleg low and pointed at the deck. Now, all it took to shoot was twitching her hoof the right way. There was only one defensible place on the bridge that wasn’t visible from the hallway. If Zecora was in there, Dash knew exactly where to aim. The dummy flew just over the threshold and bounced with a noisy clang. Dash swept her pistol in, ready to fire at… nothing. Dash twisted in midair, scanning the room, but there was nobody there. “Clear!” she called out.
“I figured,” Applejack said from the stairs leading up to the bridge. Her gallop had slowed to a trot, but Dash noticed that she hadn’t turned the safety off on her weapon. “Or one of ya would’ve been shootin’.”
“She isn’t in there?” Glimmer called from the kitchen.
“Nope.” Dash scowled. “Just what I need, a hunt for a psychotic zebra with half my crew missing. AJ, knock on that door and get Soarin out here. From now on, we’re moving in pairs only.”
“Sure thing, Captain.” From the sound of it, Soarin was still banging around in Fluttershy’s room.
Star Glimmer approached nervously, still trying to keep an eye out in every direction. “Where do you think she went?”
“Hard to say, but I’d guess the cargo hold. Plenty of cover, and worst comes to worst, she can take off in one of the shuttles. That’s where–”
“What in tarnation?! Where’s my husband?”
Applejack’s angry demand immediately caught Captain Dash’s attention. AJ didn’t sound angry enough to be talking to Zecora, if she talked at all instead of opening fire.
“That pegasus stallion? Across the hall somewhere. I’m checking this side, he’s got the other,” Toolbelt said.
“When’s the last time you saw him?” Dash cut in, her stomach sinking.
Toolbelt thought for a second. “I dunno, maybe ten minutes ago?”
The Captain swore under her breath. AJ tore open the door to the opposite room. “Honey?” she called desperately. “Soarin? This isn’t funny!” She slammed that one, moving to the next. “Don’t do this to me, Soarin!”
Every room was open and Soarin was nowhere to be found. Applejack shook with fury for a few seconds, then she grew dangerously still. When she turned to face Dash her face was set in a blank scowl. She locked eyes with her Captain, and let out a short breath. “If that mare hurt my Soarin, I’m gonna kill her,” she said, her tone horribly calm.
Captain Dash nodded slowly. “Don’t worry, AJ. We’ll find her, and she’ll get what’s coming. But we aren’t doing this alone anymore. She’s picking us off one by one. Watch the bridge with Toolbelt. Me and Glimmer will sweep the ship again. She’s got to be putting everyone someplace, and I think I know where.”
Applejack’s scowl deepened just a trace, but she nodded. Toolbelt had been watching her fearfully and reluctantly hauled herself and her toolbox onto the bridge. Dash tapped the crystal screen and locked all of the crew room doors. No sense giving Zecora extra places to hide.
What Dash didn’t get was the point to all this. If she was with the Confed, she could’ve just called for reinforcements. No need to pussyfoot around with all this stupid hide and seek. And why’d she take the sleep gun and medicine from the crates? There were silent ways to kill if you wanted to clear out a ship. Poison in the vents or the right kind of spell crystal would’ve taken out everyone at once. And more than that, how was she staying hidden so scorching long? It wasn’t a big ship, and she hadn’t had much time to explore it. But, somehow, she was running rings around the entire crew. Dash’s teeth ground together. This was starting to feel like she was ramming her head into a wall.
She wasn’t getting anything done standing in the moonbanished hallway, that was sure. She snapped a quick ‘follow me’ gesture to Glimmer and they were headed back to the cargo hold. Maybe Dash couldn’t figure out everything, but she knew one place that held some answers.
“So,” Glimmer said. Her eyes darted nervously back and forth, trying to look everywhere at once. “Where do you think they are? Do you think that’s where Zecora is hiding?”
Dash grunted. “You’ll see when we get there. And I doubt it, but it’s possible.”
Glimmer frowned. “But–”
For half a second Glimmer was silent, then she flushed and scowled. Before she could retort, Dash cut her off. “I don’t want Zecora to hear us coming.”
Star Glimmer froze at that, then nodded her head.
The cargo hold looked the same as before, but Dash took no chances. She flew a quick circuit around the hold, checking every corner before she let her pistol arm fall to her side. “Good, now it’s time to see what this whole stupid thing has been over.”
Dash flew straight to the humming equipment that looked like a fridge. Two swift button presses, it unsealed with a pressurized hiss.
“Wait!” Glimmer called, but she was too late. Dash flung the lid off to reveal–
The inside was huge, almost as big as the fridge itself and padded, but there was nothing in it.
“I told you,” Glimmer said, glaring at the Captain. “Whoever did this stole my research from me.”
“And what did they steal?” Dash asked.
Glimmer’s ears went flat and her posture turned defensive. “W-well, it’s very technical and I don’t know if I could–”
She cut off as Dash slammed her against the nearest crate. Glimmer yelped and her horn began to glow, but Dash slammed her against the crate again before she could finish the spell. The glow surrounding her horn flickered out. Dash watched to see if Glimmer would try again, but she got the message the first time.
“What,” Dash began again, “was in this crate? What is your ‘research’ all about?”
Glimmer froze, and Dash was about ready to slam her into the crate again before she sighed. “It’s not my research. It’s the Confederation’s.” Her voice grew stronger and she meet the Captain’s eyes. “They’ve been experimenting on ponies. I don’t mean the normal, voluntary experimenting either. These ponies were taken illegally and their treatments… I don’t know even half the things they’ve done to them yet. I know it involves mental magic far beyond harmless memory-share spells, but that’s just scratching the surface according to my sources.”
Dash blinked in surprise. That had not been what she had expected. Still…
She slammed Glimmer against the crate again, ignoring the small pained sound she made. “And you brought this on my ship? Without telling me? Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to see the Confed get their slimy underbelly exposed, but not when it means my crew gets put in the crosshairs!”
“And how was I supposed to trust you?” Glimmer bit out. “Depending on how deep it goes and what they’ve done, this might be a secret big enough to oust every politician in the Confederation! Maybe even re-ignite the war! They can and will kill to keep this a secret. I’ve seen the evidence of that already.”
Dash had no response. All that made sense from Glimmer’s side of things, but sunscorch it, this mare had gotten her entire crew caught in the merciless hooves of a Confed Agent. Captain Dash settled for slamming her into the crate once more, before letting go. Glimmer glared at her, but rose to her hooves without complaint. “I suppose I deserved that.”
“Yeah,” Dash bit out. “You did. I’d like to say you deserve a lot more, but I’m going to need your help. The best I can figure, Zecora’s so deep undercover that she can’t call for backup. So instead, she’s knocking everyone out and trying to take control of the ship. Then she can just fly us into whatever Confed facility she wants for trial.” She paused in thought a moment at that. “Or maybe she’s so secret that even regular authorities aren’t allowed to know she’s an Agent.”
Glimmer grimaced at that. “That sounds like something out of a cheap thriller, but I can’t deny that it’s possible. I hope not, though. She would probably have to kill us so we could never spill her secret.”
The Captain stared at her. “Well, that’s a cheerful thought. Let’s check if I’m right about where she’s putting the ponies. If I’m wrong, we’ll wait this out on the bridge. With no help coming, she’ll have to come to us.” Dash grinned wolfishly. “And we’ll be waiting.”
That’s when the lights flickered out and the cargo hold was plunged into darkness.
Emergency lighting flickered on seconds later, but for some reason it was dimmer than it should have been. The red crystals set in the corners barely glowed, and shadows were thick across the room.
“Oh, that sneaky, cunning, deceitful little nag,” Captain Dash swore.
Glimmer gasped. “Did she take the bridge?”
Dash considered that for a second and shook her head. “AJ would get off at least one shot, and we’d hear that. Zecora probably did something from the engine room. I’m pretty sure you can mess with the lights from there.”
“Pretty sure?” Glimmer said disbelievingly.
“Whatever. Either way, the plan’s the same. Check my hunch, then get to the bridge. But I need you to watch my back. Got any night vision spells?”
“No… not really. But I can do the basic illumination spell.”
It was hard not to roll her eyes, but Dash managed. “That’s not going to be much help. You’d need to light the entire room.” She sighed. “Just keep an eye out. It shouldn’t take long.” Dash turned around and shot up to the catwalk with a few quick wing flaps.
And the sun dawned behind her, throwing a stark black shadow on the wall before her. She turned back, shielding her eyes against the sudden brilliance. “Oops,” murmured the center of light. “Bright white light ruins night vision, doesn’t it?” The light shifted, turning red and muting itself slightly. Combined with the emergency crystals in the corners, the soft steady glow covered the entire room.
“Not bad,” Dash heard herself saying. It was a shame that Star Glimmer was too risky to keep. A unicorn with magic reserves like that had all kinds of uses on a ship. The Captain hurried across the catwalk to the same shuttle she had sealed up at the beginning of all this mess. It was more than big enough to store everyone missing, would make for an easy getaway if everything went south securing the main ship, and nobody could have checked inside since it had been sealed. An Agent probably had plenty of ways to bypass the simple security on this ship. If the door refused her code, that was proof enough, and if it didn’t, then she could take a quick look around.
A few quick taps on the crystal screen and the door depressurized with a hiss. Dash took a step back, flicking her pistol brace’s safety off. Zecora definitely – probably – wasn’t in there, but it didn’t hurt to be sure. Captain Dash ducked inside, bringing her pistol to bear.
The shuttle was empty. Dash bit back a curse. It had been a good idea. Too bad it hadn’t panned out. “Okay,” she called, “you can turn off the light.”
There was a second’s hesitation, then the bright glow from the cargo hold disappeared, leaving only the sullen glow of the emergency lights. Dash shut the door behind her and typed in the code to reseal it. “See anything?” she asked Glimmer as the mare neared her.
“No, but I’m still on the verge of an anxiety attack. How does your crew do this for a living?” Glimmer sighed.
Dash snorted. “It’s not like this most of the time. Win or lose, the risky part of a job is always fast. This is more like overnight in a warzone. You know the enemy’s out there, but you don’t know where or what they’re doing. Your body needs sleep, but if you shut your eyes you might not live to see morning. It plays tricks with your mind, the first few nights.”
There was a moment of silence between them. “You were in the war?” Glimmer asked hesitantly.
The Captain opened her mouth to reply, but shut it again with a snap. This wasn’t the time for stories. “Never mind. Just give me a minute to adjust to the light, then we’re headed back.”
Glimmer looked like she wanted to say something, but instead she just nodded.
Dash counted off the seconds, keeping a careful eye on her surroundings. The catwalk was too bare to offer any concealment for the zebra, but if she had some kind of gun, the lower floor would be perfect. Plenty of shadows and cover down there. Just where in the nine pits of Tartarus was she putting everyone? Maybe they hadn’t checked every nook and cranny just yet, but anyplace that could’ve held all the missing crew had been swept.
Biting back her frustration, Captain Dash nodded to Glimmer. “Keep that light off and stay as quiet as you can. We don’t want her to know we’re coming.” Without walking for a response, she stalked away. Glimmer followed, making more noise than Dash was happy with, but less than she had expected. Nothing leapt out of the darkness as the stairs led them up into the kitchen, but Dash couldn’t escape a feeling of being watched. Her eyes darted to every corner of the dim room and her ears strained to hear anything out of place. There was no movement, and the only sounds came from her and Glimmer, aside from the usual groans and quiet hums of the old ship.
The hallway was lit better, but the door leading to the bridge was shut. Smart thinking on Applejack’s part. No chance of being ambushed while that was sealed.
Her wings let her hover softly down the hallway, and Glimmer followed below. Dash licked her lips, almost there. She knocked quickly on the door. “AJ, open up. It’s me and Glimmer.”
There was some startled movement inside. “C-captain?”
Dash frowned that wasn’t AJ’s voice. “Toolbelt?”
The door opened with a clang and Toolbelt gestured urgently for them to come in. “Hurry! She might be back any second!” Dash moved in and Glimmer hurried to follow. The bridge was empty, and dimly lit by more red emergency lights. Applejack was nowhere to be seen.
“Toolbelt,” Dash said, sounding calmer than she felt. “Where’s Applejack?”
Toolbelt flinched and moved away from the door, closer to one of the consoles and her toolbox. “When the lights went out, I got out my tools and tried to fix whatever that zebra did from here. Applejack went to shut the door. My head was under the console so I didn’t see anything.” She started shaking and took several shallow breaths. “But I didn’t hear anything either. Nothing! Just one second she was here, about to shut the door, then when I looked up, she was gone! I shut the door and went back to trying to fix the lights.”
“This is scorching stupid!” Dash bellowed slamming her hoof into one of the terminals. Toolbelt and Glimmer both jumped at the sound, their ears folding back in fear. “What is she, some kind of sunscorched demon?! None of this makes any sense! How is she doing it!?”
Glimmer hesitantly stepped over to the Captain. “I don’t know about demons, but I can promise that she isn’t using magic. I would have sensed a spell powerful enough to make her invisible.”
Dash let her breathing slow, but it didn’t help her frustration. “It’s not even that. It’s like she has way of knowing exactly where we are and how to grab us. Then she disappears without a moonbanished trace! She’s right under our noses and somehow we still can’t find her. How in bloody Tartarus is she hiding in plain sight?”
Hiding in plain sight. The thought bounced around her head for a second before it settled in. There were no witnesses to any of the abductions. The only proof they had that Zecora had done it was a vial in the air duct connected to her room and the the fact that she had noticed Fluttershy’s disappearance. What if she wasn’t the culprit? What if she’d gotten snatched just like everyone else, while the ship was busy looking for Fluttershy?
Dash’s stomach sank as the pieces started to fall into place.
Toolbelt didn’t have an alibi for last night. Toolbelt hadn’t been with anybody when Fluttershy went missing. Toolbelt had been the last to leave the bridge after Zecora mentioned Fluttershy being gone. Toolbelt had been checking the rooms with Soarin. Toolbelt had been alone up here with Applejack. Toolbelt carried that suspicious toolbox for no scorching reason all the time.
Dash turned just in time to see Toolbelt flip the safety off on her pistol brace. The click echoed in the otherwise silent room.
“This is not the way things were supposed to go,” Toolbelt said, her expression grim.