Chapter 1: The City of Steel
Twilight had never actually set foot outside of Canterlot before Princess Celestia had transferred her to Ponyville. She'd hadn't really felt the urging or had the time to leave so long as her studies were most important, but the move had done her a lot of good. While the acclimation process had been aggravating (hair-raisingly so), the bookworm had plenty of new friends to ease her into the place and teach her several valuable things about friendship. And while she had familiarized herself with the stories of all the regions and cities of Equestria (ranging from the small ones like Trottingham and Hoofington to the enormous places like Manehattan and Fillydelphia) she hadn't set foot in many aside from Appleloosa. So, needless to say, Stalliongrad took her a little by surprise.
"I don't get it," Spike remarked, frowning as he and Twilight stepped off the train and onto the departure platform, raised up several stories and supported by iron girders. The structure afforded a good view of a large part of the city, and even though it was currently snowing mildly several of the more famous buildings such as the Equestria National Medical Institute and the Experimental Theater were still distinguishable.
Spike leaned up to the railing and looked out at the skyline, blackened but still blue thanks to the work of the city's local Environmental Brigade, Pegasi who worked around the clock to keep the city still at the minimum Clear Skies limit. Still, it didn't help considering what most of the city was.
"There's so many factories here. Even Manehattan isn't this bad, and it's got three times Stalliongrad's population." The infant dragon huffed, sending a plume of flame into the air that turned a small bit of falling snow into warm vapor.
Twilight had dressed warmly, remembering to bring a nice warm saddle, scarf and boots. Stalliongrad was much further north of Canterlot, and as such was subject to extreme drops in temperature, making such attire almost required to even set foot in the city.
"All those things that are made for us ponies have to be built somewhere, Spike," she remarked, idly blowing a forelock out of her eyes. "Stalliongrad contains all of Equestria's industry, and the workers here make their living off the imports of raw materials and the exports of finished goods to places such as Canterlot, Cloudsdale and even Ponyville. There's a lot of things that can't be produced locally in the towns, and Stalliongrad grew from that." Twilight looked out over the city with something akin to a mix of curiosity and sadness. "These ponies lead quite simple lives. Work, go to sleep. They're not very bothered by things at large."
Spike snorted in typical Spike fashion. "Booooring. Seriously, that's all they do? Why don't they just power the factories with magic? Be so much simpler and free a lot of those workers from a life filled with nothing but two dull things. Although sleep is alright..."
Here, Twilight glared down at Spike, who seemed oblivious to her. "Spike, if we were to remove these ponies from their jobs, where would they go? What would they do? How would they get their bits? And let's not mention the dragons and their loss of horde-"
"Wait! Did you just say dragons live here?" Spike abruptly seemed –very- interested in what Twilight had to say, staring up at her with wide eyes. She shrugged, unable to resist the chance to run her studies through her brain. "It's a favored place of adolescent dragons for the warmth and potential wealth. Dragons don't buy much, so they usually save their earnings as the beginning of their hordes. The place is also famous for several cafes that cater only to dragons with gemstones they buy from the quarries."
Not surprisingly, Spike's attitude suddenly took a complete turnaround, and he grinned, sticking a thumbs-up into the air. "Alright! Sign me up, I say we go to one of those places right now!"
Twilight sighed, knowing she shouldn't have divulged that little bit of information to her miniscule draconian companion. "No, Spike. This isn't a social call, remember? We're here to meet with the head of the Worker's League and discuss difficulties in Princess Celestia's stead."
And just like that, Spike did another about-face with his mood, his shoulders slumping and his brow dragging down. "Fine. Let's get this over with…"
However, as they descended the stairs to reach the main station and thus their gateway into the city, Twilight noticed something a little strange awaiting them by the entrance. A single pony was standing next to a large white cardboard sign with 'Twilight Sparkle and Guest' written on it in what looked to be some kind of paint. While Spike fumed about being the 'Guest' and therefore not important enough for his actual name ("It's the same amount of letters, for crying out loud!") the unicorn inspected the pony from a distance, noting that he wasn't like the others around them.
Most ponies in Stalliongrad were earth ponies, like Ponyville, and not even the large amounts of moving and intermixing of culture had changed that fact. The stallion (or colt, she wasn't sure of his age) that had caught her attention was a gray-skinned pony with a mane and tail as dark as coal, both of which were trimmed short. He was definitely an earth pony; there was nowhere to hide his horn or wings thanks to his attire. Thanks to Stalliongrad's climate it was absolute foolhardiness to go outside without at least a coat on, but he wore a blue padded vest over a simple long sleeved shirt, goggles over his eyes and what appeared to be a helmet on his head.
"A soldierpony?" she muttered, tilting her head to the side as she scrutinized the stallion awaiting their arrival. He was standing rock-steady, his head staring right at them, though the goggles kept his eyes obscured. The vest, then, must be a combat piece, and the shirt his fatigues. Twilight had, of course, studied Equestria's history extensively, but when she'd learned that the Army hadn't been deactivated like the Air Force and Magic Corps had been in the few hundred years since the last war, she'd done a little digging in her texts.
Spike snorted. "What's the military even doing in Stalliongrad? We're miles from the griffon border. It's not like we need them anyway."
"Spike, soldiers perform other tasks than fighting. Sometimes if a situation gets too out of hand for the local police, the army will step in to help. Manehattan, Fillydelphia, all the major cities keep an active garrison of regular army and at least a few companies of reserves in case things ever get out of hand."
"Out of hand, right." Here, Spike snorted again, his obvious disdain at not going for gemstones obviously weighing down his attitude. "Think about it, Twilight. We solve pretty much every problem in and around Ponyville without –any- police at all. And I doubt the rest of Equestria is so feeble they can't take care of themselves. Is the army even –needed- anymore?"
Of course it was. They provide protection and security to the land, as well as jobs for those who need them. Well, that's what Twilight would have said if she hadn't stopped her automatic response and genuinely thought about what Spike was saying. Most ponies in Equestria felt safe enough as is, and stayed away from places they didn't…mostly (the memories of the numerous occasions in the Everfree Forest came to mind) and jobs were quite simple to come across. If they weren't, one was made for them out of sheer courtesy.
Were these soldiers actually needed? Or were they simply a relic from the past?
Before she could answer her dragon assistant, she turned her head back, intending to glance at the trooper pony again, only to be shocked at finding him right in front of her all of a sudden.
"Ma'am? You're Twilight Sparkle, correct?" His voice was curt, crisp and full of deference. As a regular pony, she had very little power. As Princess Celestia's star pupil, however, she had quite a reputation. If the army sent someone to meet her, they would undoubtedly show them what she looked like. Fortunately, she managed to compose herself enough to smile and answer.
"Yeah, I am. Pleasure to meet you. This is Spike, my assistant."
"Sup?" asked the dragon in question, looking quite bored and uninterested in their greeter.
Twilight tilted her head to the side, ignoring Spike's foul manners as she said "We're here on official business. What's your name?"
"Oh, pardon me." The soldier reached up, pushing his goggles over the brim of his helmet before he smiled and held out his hoof. "Private Stop, Royal Army. Nice to meet you, ma'am."
He seemed like a polite enough colt, so she reached out, shaking hooves with him as she replied "Please, just call me Twilight. You're making me feel old. Stop's an interesting name, though."
He blushed a little, grinning sheepishly as he grunted awkwardly. "It's uh, my last name. Short Stop, see?"
Short Stop turned a little, showing off his flank and the ball and bat cutie mark upon it. "Most of my family played professionally."
Twilight knew of the sport, but only had a loose grasp on the status of the games worldwide. "What about you?"
Here, however, Short Stop became a bit fidgety, and seemed to draw back into himself. "Well, it's family tradition…anyway, I bet you're wondering why I'm here. I was assigned to be your liaison for your visit here. I'll take care of all your needs and help you out with negotiations around here."
"Liaison? What's that?" Spike asked, not giving this stranger any sense that the baby dragon was truly interested whatsoever.
Fortunately, it was Twilight that answered, drawing at least a little of her assistant's attention. "It's sort of like you, Spike. Except liaisons are short term and usually drawn from the local people. Speaking of which," here she turned back to Short and asked "Why do we need one? I'm just going to talk to the head of the Worker's League. It's not like I'm trying to negotiate with the dragons." Now that she thought about it, a liaison could have helped with that one dragon who'd been smogging up Equestria during his nap, but Fluttershy had come through in the end, so no use in starting What If's.
Short answered quickly and curtly, as seemed to be his base attitude. "Beg pardon, but ponies from other cities aren't respected much around here. Stalliongrad just doesn't take outsiders seriously. I'm supposed to be there to give you guys some credit and smooth things over."
Twilight frowned anew, puzzled by the statement. Ponies were ponies. It wasn't like the interspecies negotiations involving the griffons or dogs from across the borders, or even trying to talk down a dragon.
"I think I have plenty of credit, uh…Private. I'm Princess Celestia's star pupil. Surely I can at least convince them to talk to me."
Short didn't look convinced, raising a black eyebrow to hide underneath the brim of his helmet, but to his credit he at least gave way and didn't pursue the topic.
"Alright. Do you want me to call for a steam wagon? The League's quartered only a short distance away, but I figure you might appreciate the ride."
Twilight smiled again, thankful he wasn't a bitter stallion, and trotted past into the snowy streets, saying "No thanks. I just spent six hours cooped up in a metal box. I'd like to stretch my legs a little for the short time we'll be here."
Spike, however, objected very strongly. "But Twilight! It's so freaking cold out here!"
Stalliongrad had a rugged beauty to it, as the strong, old brick walls stretched above her head. It took her a little while to finally realize that there were residences, hotels and other shops squeezed between the factories, so similarly were they built that she suspected they had all belonged to one enormous building and simply built down into as time went on. Her books had said that the entire city had been carefully planned, but had been suspiciously vague about what extents the architects had gone to.
Still, for a business trip, the place was indeed nice to watch. Worker ponies seemed to at least keep a measure of spirit despite their rather grim surroundings, and it was obvious that while they weren't completely happy they were at least content.
It wasn't just ponies on the street, either. Occasionally, a small group of dragons ranging anywhere from Spike's size to as tall as the buildings around them walked past, separating the crowds around them as the reptiles went on their way. Spike waved hi to these groups, and while they were polite enough to wave and smile, they didn't engage in his casual banter at all. Eventually, the baby dragon simply gave up, more content to sulk as he followed in Twilight's wake next to Short.
Things were starting to get a little awkward for the purple unicorn. The longer she stayed in this city, the more she felt like all the happiness and soul was being sucked out of her surroundings. The buildings were becoming drab, the sky turning grey and the ponies around her were becoming more and more depressed, and she began to stick out like a sore hoof. She needed a distraction. Quickly.
She glanced back at Short before saying "So, Short. I notice you don't have a gun-yoke on. Aren't you on active duty?"
He nodded, a small smile of understanding gracing his features, causing her to blink once or twice. He wasn't that bad looking, really. And he was definitely in top shape…
"We're not allowed to carry weapons outside the garrison. Standard Equestrian law. Unless there is an imminent invasion, riot or we're transporting equipment to another site, lethal equipment cannot leave the allotted area. It's the same as every other city."
"Oh," said Twilight, remembering that she had read up on the institution of that law after the Pie Riots when sixteen ponies and four soldiers had become wounded during a heated exchange. Fortunately, no one had died, but the army had been completely at fault for firing on a crowd without issuing a warning. As such, no carrying weapons.
Fortunately, Short didn't miss a beat, continuing right on as though he were oblivious of Twilight's embarrassment (or maybe he really was). "We may not be right on the border with the griffons but we do sometimes still get problems occasionally."
At this, the unicorn's ears perked up. "Problems? What kind? Surely it can't be too bad if Princess Celestia hasn't been informed, right?"
To her surprise, Short shook his head. "Actually, I don't think the mayor reports them to Canterlot. We get a few bands of no-gooders occasionally that need to be chased out. Mostly diamond dogs, nothing to ever really worry about."
Spike's expression at the words diamond dogs was nothing less than a furious scowl, obviously looking to exact some vengeance for Rarity's capture and forced labor, even if she did get herself out of it. Twilight ignored her assistant and his muttered curses, instead focusing on the issue at hand.
"Mostly? How often do they come by?"
Before Short could answer, however, there was an enormous CRASH up ahead, and a wooden produce stand split in half as an enormous bulldog tore through it from behind as though the wood was nothing more than tissue paper. Behind it, from the alleyway the stand had hidden, a group of dogs poured out, spreading out and snarling as they began tackling ponies, searching them roughly before moving on.
"Quite often, actually," replied Short in an annoyed tone.
(Warhorse here folks! As you may or may not have determined, this is my first fic as a brony, and as such is my experimentation into the world of MLP:FiM. To those of you who are dedicated bronies, I hope you enjoy the fic thus far and can forgive me if I make one or two canon or character errors here and there. I've studied long and hard for this and put my best into it.
Anyway, love it, hate it, just don't flame it! Leave your comments and questions in the review section, and I'll be sure to get back to you as quick as I can!)