Scootaloo adjusted her goggles against the wind that pressed against her face as wings propelled her and one passenger through the air.
"Thanks for taking me to Manehattan," Sweetie Belle said.
"Don't mention it," Scootaloo replied.
They were flying fast away from Ponyville, heading northeast. Scootaloo was hoping to beat the weather. She adjusted her goggles again.
"You okay down there?"
"Yes, I'm fine," came the nervous reply.
Sweetie Belle had not been too fond of the idea of flying by harness, but Scootaloo had assured her that it was perfectly safe. However, she hadn't told Sweetie Belle the real reason that they were making this flight. Taking a friend to Manehattan to see her sister seemed like it would provide a plausible enough cover to prevent anypony from becoming suspicious. She was fortunate that Brax had approved the leave without much question. There were some advantages to being technically on medical leave.
What she hadn't been able to figure out up to this point was how to uncover any more information on the conspiracy. Scootaloo had briefly entertained the idea that Diamond Tiara might be involved, but she ultimately decided that it wasn't likely. Rotten though she was, staging a coup would be far beneath even her standards.
"Hey, Sweetie Belle.”
"What is it?"
"I wasn't allowed to tell you while we were in town, but we have to make a stop at Cloudsdale on our way.”
"I'm not supposed to talk about it. I have a priority message for Rainbow Dash; it's top secret," Scootaloo evaded as cryptically as she was able. It was true, in a sense. "Don't worry, we won't be there for very long, and I think the Cloudsdale Mall is still open. Maybe you can find a gift for Rarity."
"That's a great idea!" Sweetie Belle seemed excited by the change in plan.
Scootaloo was pleased with herself for misdirecting her friend so easily. This was quite the role reversal. Usually her unicorn passenger would be the one with some scheme or another that she'd be convincing everypony to go along with. Scootaloo felt herself smile until the carrot incident came to mind, which always served to create a frown.
They flew on in silence until they reached Cloudsdale. The trip took longer than normal as they started out heading northeast, directly toward Manehattan until they were out of sight. Scootaloo didn't want to take a chance on anypony knowing that they had actually gone to Cloudsdale instead. That was at least one problem she could deal with. The other problem that had been on Scootaloo's mind was that the inability to know if there were any conspirators already in Cloudsdale. It was a risk they had to take.
The CAP around the floating city intercepted the pair as they drew near and escorted them to an entry point in the magical shield. With the changelings’ ability to fly, nowhere seemed safe anymore. The new security measures in the great floating city certainly would prevent any easy incursion.
Upon landing, they were promptly separated, questioned, searched, and scanned. Scootaloo did her best to remain as pleasant as possible, and maintained that they had come here to avoid weather and stop at the mall. Her travel papers did specify Manehattan as her destination. After causing a twenty-minute delay, the guards made a weak apology for any inconvenience and allowed them to enter the city. They were kind enough to put a spell on Sweetie Belle so she didn't plummet through the clouds and fall to her death.
Passing through a section of shield that the unicorn guards opened for them, the pair entered Cloudsdale. Scootaloo was amazed at how different everything looked. The purple glow of the energy shield discolored everything, but as usual, there were thousands of cadets doing drills. They looked to be a few weeks into their training already. There were also many soldiers about the city, probably on standby, waiting for orders. The changelings would have been insane to even attempt an attack here. After pointing Sweetie Belle in the direction of the mall, Scootaloo walked to the cadet HQ where Rainbow Dash commanded. The guards stopped her at the door.
"No entry permitted," one of them said.
"Sergeant Scootaloo, requesting to see Colonel Rainbow Dash," she said stiffly.
“The colonel is no longer assigned to this office,” a gruff reply came. “Check the Wonderbolt’s barracks.”
It took a bit of searching to track down Rainbow Dash. A guard at the barracks told her to check the war room. There, she was again denied entry.
"Sergeant Scootaloo, requesting to see Colonel Rainbow Dash," she repeated her request.
One of the guards nodded to the other, which turned and disappeared into the building. Scootaloo heard the door lock behind him. She stood there, turning about to watch the pegasi cadets performing flight maneuvers. They were mere specs from where she now stood, but some of them showed real talent. Provided they could handle themselves in a fight, they were going to be valuable assets to the war effort. Scootaloo's thoughts were interrupted when the door opened again, and the guard was standing there. He motioned her to follow, and she did so.
There wasn’t much time to look around as they marched through the command center of all Equestria, but this gargantuan room reminded her of CIC back in Ponyville: maps everywhere. The room was a great hall filled with desks on which the maps sat. At the far end was a set of steps that led to a higher level upon which a large table sat. The high vaulted ceiling made everything seem grandiose. It was fairly quiet inside the headquarters, but there were probably a hundred ponies planning out and assessing the war effort. It didn't take long to reach an office in the side of the building. It somehow seemed a lifetime since she had seen her mentor; in fact, it had been almost a month.
"Hey there, long time no see," Rainbow Dash greeted her from the opposite end of the small room. She still wore a bandage on her wings.
Several other ponies stood around a messy table, which was covered with sloppily stacked piles of papers.
"Hi, I'm sorry to barge in like this, but can I talk to you?" Scootaloo asked.
"Of course! What's on your mind, kid?" Rainbow Dash replied, cool as always.
Scootaloo looked back and forth to the other officers and said, "Well, it's kind of personal."
Putting up a hoof, Rainbow Dash said, "Say no more!" Turning to the others in the disheveled office, she said, "Give us the room. Reconvene here in an hour."
The others cleared the space, the the last one out shutting the door. Scootaloo could feel her heart pounding already in anticipation. She was relieved to have made it this far. Rainbow Dash looked a little concerned, but Scootaloo had the feeling that it was nothing compared to how she was about to feel.
“I see you’ve got a bandage too now,” Rainbow Dash observed.
“Yeah, it’s just a sprain.”
“I hear you. I get mine off tomorrow. I can’t wait to get back in the air again. So, what's going on?" the colonel asked.
"Well, it's not personal, I just had to get rid of the others," Scootaloo began.
Concern on Rainbow Dash's face transformed into curiosity.
"I have received information that there is a plot to overthrow Prince Shining Armor."
The silence in the room grew thick. They stood there, staring at each other.
"What was that?" Rainbow Dash finally asked in disbelief.
"There is going to be a coup," Scootaloo replied as her heart kept thumping loudly. "And if we don't prepare, we may not be able to stop it."
“What are you saying? Are you telling me that changelings have infiltrated our ranks?"
Scootaloo shook her head slowly. "No," she replied, her voice wavering. “Well, maybe. As far as I can tell, this is completely internal."
"Who is involved?"
"I don't know all of them. The only name I have is General Mane Crusher."
"Wow... What evidence do you have?"
"A letter was written to a civilian in Ponyville. It was from Mane Crusher's aide, a Captain Swiftlight that I have been getting to know over the past few weeks. He wrote that he had observed several things that made him believe that there was a plot in progress, and that he was going to investigate further. He also said that if he suddenly disappeared that he had probably been killed by the conspirators. He did suddenly vanish three days ago. At first they kept telling us he was on maneuvers, even though there was no indication of anything else happening in or around Ponyville. Then they finally told us that he had transferred to another unit."
"Are you sure that he wasn't transferred?" Rainbow Dash asked.
"He wrote in his letter that no force in Equestria could make him leave without saying goodbye. Also, when we asked about it, the clerk found the transfer order and showed it to us."
"So, a helpful clerk is evidence of a conspiracy?"
"Well, no, not by itself. But combined with everything else... He just seemed to be going to extra lengths to make sure we believed him."
"Show me the letter," Rainbow Dash ordered.
"I can't," Scootaloo hesitated a moment. “Sparklefly destroyed it."
Rainbow Dash shook her head.
"We were afraid of being caught with it. If they did kill Swiftlight, none of us are safe.”
"So, let me get this straight," Rainbow Dash took a step forward. "You got a note from a pony you barely know that indicates a conspiracy that he didn't know anything about. Now you can't find him, and the note was destroyed.” She paused before concluding, “You brought me nothing."
"We have to prepare," Scootaloo said, becoming alarmed.
“It’s whispers and hearsay... What would you have me do? March over to Shining Armor and tell him that there might be a conspiracy, but we really don't know anything more than that?"
Scootaloo throught it did sound rather silly when put so succinctly. If the fate of Equestria hadn't been in the balance, it might have been amusing.
"No," Scootaloo said. "I want you to take me to Shining Armor so I can tell him about General Mane Crusher myself."
Rainbow Dash regarded Scootaloo for a moment. "This is a very serious accusation. Do you understand the consequences? Do you realize that it will be your neck on the line?"
Scootaloo stood silently, her gaze falling to the floor.
"What if you are wrong?" Rainbow Dash asked. "This could be the end of your career in the EUP at the very least. I can't help you throw your life away."
Scootaloo looked into Rainbow Dash's magenta eyes and said, "What if I'm right, and we do nothing?"
Rainbow Dash walked away, slowly circling the messy table. Her head nodded and shook as she considered all of this to herself. She came around and stopped facing toward the corner where Tank, her pet tortoise, was sleeping on a pillow. The older mare sighed, but not with exasperation. It was like a caring but hopeless expression.
"For all our sakes, I hope you're wrong. But for your sake, I hope you're right. Wait here. I’ll get Shining Armor."