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Closing Time · FiM Short Story ·
Organised by RogerDodger
Word limit 2000–8000
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The Iridescent Iron Rat
"A dozen roses, please," the dragon rumbled, and I couldn't resist one last con before the big job.

"Certainly, sir!" I said brightly. "That'll be twenty-one fifty."

One purple foreleg, as big around as a tree trunk and considerably more muscular, rummaged in his neckpouch with the comfortable jingle of coinage, and two claws extracted a five-thousand bit coin like a grain of sand in a pair of tweezers. I leaned forward out of my stall, wings out for balance, and clenched my teeth around the tiny golden disc.

There is an intricate art to tongue-sleight, so subtle that most ponies think it's impossible. It requires the proper environment—such as a cluttered flower stall with the customer counter on one side, the cashbox on the other, and a profusion of items hung from the center brace to obscure their view for a split-second. It requires extensive personal preparation—a frog-tongue thaumic trait for a little extra grabbing power, and a modified squirrel-cheek trait for a palate pouch to store the second coin without having it come out covered in spit. And it requires intense practice—both in talking naturally with coins in your mouth, and in performing the motions fluidly enough not to be noticed.

As my head swung behind the center display, I opened my mouth, shooting my tongue forward and back; the five-kay vanished in between my tongue and lower jaw. Then I flicked my tongue up and forward, catching the very tip of the pouched two-kay and shooting it out like a spitwad from a straw, re-clenching my teeth with microsecond timing to catch the very back end of the coin with a soft tick. When my head swung back into view a fraction of a second later, everything looked identical, except that the coin in my teeth was fractionally lighter and embossed with the Two Sisters rather than the First Friends. Continuing the fluid motion, I dropped the coin next to my cashbox with an audible rattle of metal on wood, then did a practiced double-take as my hoof paused on the cashbox's closed lid.

"I'm sorry, sir," I said, turning an intently remorseful stare up…and up…and up into the dragon's emerald eyes. "But money's tight these days, and I can't cut any deals…do you have the other one-fifty?"

The swap, of course, had barely earned me lunch money—an insignificant fraction of the mill I'd paid for the Cloudsdale Square vendor's license. I could have cheated customers of their spare change for a week and done little more than break even. I wasn't there to earn money, though. I was there to keep my skills sharp and my wits sharper. It was that sort of dedication—honing my craft to the point where I could dare to think about cheating a dragon to his face—that kept Jimmy the Grey working cons year after year.

The dragon's eyes shot open. He leaned in, squinting at the two-kay bit on the counter, then hefted his neckpouch in one claw, frowning. My heart danced a cha-cha, but I kept my muzzle carefully earnest.

Then he reached back in, rummaging around slightly longer, and extracted a rectangular strip of colored paper with the precision of a surgeon, threading his claws through my displays to drop it near the coin. The bill fluttered down to rest alongside my cashbox. My own eyes went wide.

"A kaymill? Sir, I couldn't possibly make change for this, the entire stall's not worth that much—"

"Keep the change. My flowers, please."

The alarms in my head were screaming. "Sir," I said carefully, "if you'll forgive a moment of stereotyping, dragons aren't in the business of charity, and this is an uncomfortably large investment in a simple flower-seller."

"It's not an investment," he said, "it's a gratuity, for services rendered." He made a sweeping gesture around Cloudsdale Square, at the towering cloudcrete-and-lightglass skyscrapers, at the whizzing airbuses in their flightpaths, at the giant thaumic stabilization ring around the perimeter of the city. "If I might stereotype in return, this is an age of tamed miracles, and ponykind has been tamed along with it. Inborn desires toward larceny get measured in foalhood and quietly re-educated out of ponies, and those who start turning to crime later in life are quickly caught and Harmonized. Honestly, it was worth a kaymill just to see someone try. The last time anypony even made the effort at robbery was a generation ago, and the last time anypony succeeded was Inseam herself."

And there was that unpleasant little word—"robbery"—doubly so with how seriously dragons took assaults upon their wealth. It was time to figure out how to take cover from his fire breath as I made my exit. Out the back of the stall, then into the lobby of Cloud Savings, then…no, dead end, and a quick disguise change would be useless since none of the gear on me would foil a dragon's sense of smell. Through his legs and into the crowd? Audacious, but unless he thought fast enough to sit on me, he couldn't dare attack without collateral damage. First, I'd need a moment of distraction. "Sir, if you'll think calmly for a moment, I believe there may have been some mistake here," I stalled.

He chuckled deep in his throat. "Oh, I'm quite certain there was a mistake. I had one hundred and thirty-seven coins in my pouch when I reached in, weighing 4,247 grams, and my treasure sense is now telling me 4,216. Now, I'm humble enough to admit that I'm still young yet, and if I pulled out a two-kay, I might have lost three grams to an accounting error. However…considering that every single one of those coins was a five-kay, it's clear the mistake here wasn't mine."


I'd walked right into that, hadn't I? It galled me that I hadn't considered he'd take such an improbable precaution, but that was what happened with spur-of-the-moment thinking: your assumptions did you in. On the bright side, I'd never had to flee from a dragon before, so this would be the finest sort of on-the-job training.

"Now," he continued, "before you try dashing between my legs and losing yourself in the crowd—which would get approximately as far as several tons of scaly hindquarters, and would end up with your talents gone to waste in a Harmonization Center—care to hear an offer?"

There went Plan A, which meant that keeping him talking was good. "Go ahead."

"A dragon of my considerable assets could always use someone of your intelligence and chutzpah. A pony who can think outside the box, and pull off the impossible. It's a desk job, unfortunately, but I can make it worth your while. That bill on the counter? It could be pocket change. Imagine what you could do with the resources to back up your wit."

I had no doubt that the offer was sincere, and even less doubt that I would loathe every minute of being employed. "That's tempting, sir—"


"That's tempting, Spike, and I'd love to hear more, but first, mind if I go deposit this bill in the bank behind me? I've accumulated a few overdrafts this could clear up." Plan B was worth a second shot, never mind the armed guards and the lack of alternate exits. Even if I ended up right back here, waiting in line would buy me more thinking time.

Spike sighed. "Well, it was worth a shot. If you don't mind, I'd rather skip all the tedious bluffing and mind games while you flail for a new plan, so here's my final offer: Pocket my money and give me my flowers, and I'll give you a twelve-second head start."

Twelve? Even nine would comfortably put me on the far side of the square and around the corner toward my emergency exit. I almost bargained him down to eight to recover some of my bruised ego, but pride had already gotten me into enough trouble today. "Deal," I said, cramming the kaymill into my saddlebags and hoofing over the most extravagant-looking bouquet in my stock. It's not like I was taking a loss on the transaction—I'd stolen them that morning from a Harmonicorp delivery truck.

"Thank you," Spike said, and by the time he added "One" I was already off like a shot, vaulting out of the stall and galloping through the park in the center of the square. The afternoon crowds were getting thick, so I took a leaping shortcut over the fountain, bouncing off Commander Hurricane's cloudcrete tail and startling a group of well-dressed unicorn tourists. I resisted the urge to spread my wings—flying would make Spike's line of sight easier, and deny me some of my best tools in a pinch—and landed on the broad lawn past the statue, dodging around picnickers and through a game of disc-toss. At the count of six I was on cloudcrete again, and at eight I was leaning into a sharp turn, upper wing spread to tighten it. Nine saw me galloping past the scattered ground delivery traffic of Sunburst Street—aircarts weren't cost-effective for bulk freight—and I was skidding around the second corner into the alleyway on the count of twelve.

A moment later, there was a flash of purple light from back on Sunburst Street, and the distinctive bang of teleportation. A big one. "Ready or not," Spike called out from just thirty meters away, amid the screams of terrified delivery ponies and a sudden and general stampede, "here I come!"

Oh, come on! What sort of crazy reptile, with built-in dragonfire delivery, learned how to teleport—and what kind of crazy unicorn would teach him?

I set my jaw as I galloped toward the end of the blind alley, suddenly grateful I had shut up about those last four seconds. I clearly was going to need my A game to get out of this mess. Fortunately, I'd planned this part long in advance.

As I reached the brick facade at the rear of the alleyway, I locked my front hooves and threw my body into a spin, hiking my hips and lashing my hinds out at one particular brick whose red was brighter than the others. I was no earth pony, but the momentum of my charge combined with the buck to send my hooves straight through the brick and into my small cache behind. I winced a bit as the dual shocks hit my ankles—good thing I didn't have more galloping to do—and hauled my hooves back out, one of them dragging a tangle of shiny blue fabric. I lost another precious second kicking my leg free of it, then clenched my jaw around the corner of the blanket and yanked. It billowed out above me, and while gravity was settling it down over my body, I already had both wings spread out in front of my muzzle. I plucked a flashbang feather from one and a thaum-surge from the other, both of which immediately primed into their detonation glows.

Behind me, there was an ear-splitting crash, and then an empty delivery cart tumbled like a desert-weed past the alleyway entrance. "Coming through!" Spike bellowed amid further screams, and his claws thundered down the street toward the corner.

I snapped my wings back into position just in time for the blanket to settle in atop my body, and jerked my head sideways to fling the feathers into the air behind me. Then I leapt a meter to the right—no time for subtlety—landing a short, sharp stomp on one corner of the groundplate with the faulty lock. It bounced off its frame, leaping a few centimeters behind my rising hooves, and I wedged a hooftip underneath it and heaved. The Cloud Maintenance door swung open on the hinges I'd recently oiled, revealing a square tunnel descending under the surface of the city, the rungs of a ladder quickly vanishing into the shadows.

I flung myself straight down the shaft, limbs and head tucked in, rolling to plummet back-first into the darkness.

Up above me, there was a brilliant, searing light as the flashbang went off, and every hair in my body stood on end as the thaum detonation sent shockwaves through the aether. The last thing I heard as the door slammed closed was a mighty screech—apparently Spike had rounded the corner just in time to get an eyeful.

Then my falling body hit the floor.

And kept going.

I avoided spells as much as possible in my line of work—setting off the wrong magic detector was a guaranteed visit from the police; not to mention that spells could be countered, and enchantments suppressed, to fail you exactly when you needed them most—but sometimes there was no substitute for magic. My makeshift cloak, for example, had started life as an earth-pony raincoat, projecting a minor water-repulsion field. A bit of tinkering with a storebought thaumic amplifier—itself modded to remove the limiter field—had supercharged the spell. The cloudcrete of the upper city was light-as-air stone, but Cloudsdale was still built atop clouds; the maintenance tunnels had been built for pegasi like myself, and normally I would have hit the floor with a soggy smack, but a microsecond before my own personal field could interact with the cloud floor, the fabric's field cut through it and shoved it aside like the vapor it was, blazing a self-sealing tunnel straight down through the foundations into open sky.

As soon as I was clear, I rolled out of the blanket and spread my wings, swooping in a lazy circle to retrieve the fabric and hoofstuffing it awkwardly into one saddlebag. I checked to make certain that there was nopony in sight, then flew over to a small alcove I'd hollowed out of the cloud during my planning. With my hooves back on a solid surface for a moment, it was time for some changes.

Goodbye Jimsonweed, mildly pudgy botanist with modest dreams of small-business entrepreneurship; hello J.B. Greyson, thin and long-muzzled corporate automaton repairstallion. Jimsonweed's paunch was a pair of kangaroo traits, their openings concealed in my wingpits, packed with shaped nullfoam to keep my disguise tools in comfortable stasis. J.B.'s muzzle would be a similar application of alchemy: a tiny touch of elephant trait on the bridge of the nose.

Although its various reagents were thaumically active, traiting wasn't magic in the traditional sense. It involved injecting a very specific and sensitive extract of Poison Joke, prepared with a homeopathic solution of animal blood, to splice one of that animal's characteristics permanently into your body—until an equally specific injection of an herbal Joke remedy undid the effect. Because Poison Joke merely altered your personal morphic field, its changes didn't scan as active magic, and couldn't be suppressed or countered by spells; every alteration did mean your inherent magical trace changed, but that was less a problem than a feature for someone like me.

My flight feathers, too, had been traited, but their special properties were the result of years of careful experimentation—shark-tooth on the wings for quick feather regrowth; a bizarre and powerful mixture of manticore-tail, porcupine-quill and rattlesnake-fang to turn the feathers into detachable reserves of magical toxin; and then various other injections to alter the magical potential of that poison into something useful to me. Some ridiculously expensive black-market essence of windigo had turned those feathers into fog bombs, flash-freezing the water vapor in a huge volume of surrounding air; and further applications of blood samples liberated from the Everfree Memorial Zoo had given many of those clouds a little extra punch with soporific or nauseating qualities. The flash-bang was a simple conversion of a feather's magical potential into noise and light, and the explosive thaumic discharge simpler still—releasing the energy in a way that mimicked the surge of spellcasting, as I'd done escaping from Spike. The obvious conclusion for a spellcaster like him would have been that I'd activated a teleporter, and for the next several hours he'd be scouring the upper city's hundreds of preset destination pads for my drop point.

As I injected the antidotes for my pouch traits—I'd miss their utility, but I needed to drop the weight for my new identity—I couldn't help but replay the whole encounter in my mind. Maybe dragons were just that irrationally scrupulous about their bits, but I couldn't shake the feeling that I'd been played from the first moment. And what about his job offer? The Princesses had stamped out organized crime centuries ago…or so I'd heard, and my every encounter with the simple and scattered grifters that passed for a criminal underworld bore that out. Had I finally stumbled across the deep underground organization snapping up all the real talent?

Or was he Rainbow Corps?

A chill ran down my spine at the thought. Equestria's police and Guards were like the rest of the nation—fat, soft and lazy after centuries of harmony. When it came down to it, the few ponies like me who had the smarts for a life of crime were providing a public service, giving them something to do beyond dreary days of writing traffic tickets. The Rainbow Corps were something else—a small and secretive cabal of heroes who were sent after the worst of the worst. They'd taken down the Chrysalid Cartel, back when changelings were still infiltrators into pony society; they'd broken the back of the Gryphic Raiders, bringing peace to the eastern continent; they'd even captured the great Inseam—the Tailor of Terror, the Celestia of Crime. Had he been offering me a chance to go straight before closing in?

I snorted. Whether kingpin or hero, he didn't know me if he thought I'd play along.

Once upon a time, when society's rules were looser, crime had flourished—just like the old wooden granaries had more rats than the modern ones with their airtight construction, teleport access and null-field preservatives. It was easy to be a rat in the old days, but the modern era required a different breed that was smart enough to foil the magical countermeasures protecting the few remaining cracks. A cold-iron rat, if you will. Only a hoof-ful of ponies were capable of such a feat, and to get away with it—alone, using only your wits—was the greatest thing in the world.

With that in mind, I knew it was time to start the job I'd come to Cloudsdale to do. A smart rat didn't stick around once the exterminators came knocking. My little altercation with Spike would tie up half the city's cops, and I could hit my target and be halfway across the continent before the Corps found my trail.

I applied a storebought personal alterant to my mane—it was what had originally given me the idea of traiting—shifting it to a function-over-form buzz cut, and used the color-shifting trait I'd discovered early on to turn my pelt into J.B.'s dull grey. The Cutie Mark was a different matter entirely; traiting it was beyond even my skills. I squirted on a few drops of the solvent for the alchemical permahesive holding on the image of the bouquet, revealing underneath the crowbar Mark that had first earned me the name "Jimmy." In its place went a screwdriver grip over the curved end of the crowbar, and a mallet crossing over it. A perfectly nondescript Mark for a repairstallion. The old Mark, along with the used syringes and padding, got wadded up in the raincape, and then I triggered a tiny disintegrator-bomb I'd modded out of an office wastepaper-atomizer.

All traces of my past life gone, I pinned on the forged Harmonicorp ID card I'd bought, flew toward the center of the donut-shaped cloud holding up the city, and spiraled up the central updraft. Sticking scrupulously to the flight lanes, I landed at Central Station. First, I went into the station's Honest Tea franchise and grabbed a caff-cider, paying for it with a two-hundred-kay bill from my saddlebag—which got me some odd looks; it was a little-used denomination. Then I discreetly spit Spike's five-kay out of my mouth-pouch and bought an airbus ticket for the Northedge Express. Finally, I ducked into the bathroom, pulled out the blunt back ends of my lockpicks, and added a few extra punches to the cards—altering it into a ticket into Northeast Industrial.

I'd lost 1500 bits in the bargain. That was the guiding principle of petty misdirection: anything that shorted the system would be flagged and scrutinized, but anything which benefited it would be glossed over as an accounting error. What sort of thief would rob himself?

I settled into a seat near the front of my airbus, directly behind the driver. Except for a few earth ponies in the back, whose conversation suggested they were heading out to an overnight road-maintenance job, the bus was empty—which was a welcome benefit, since it would give me an extra chance to go back over my heist plans. That idea was scotched, however, when a tall, pudgy unicorn galloped up to the bus as the doors were closing, and sat down directly across from me as she caught her breath. She glanced up at me, and our eyes locked for a second. "Oh, my," she said with a smile. "It's not often you see a pegasus in an airbus."

I took in the pristine curls of her indigo mane—a direct copy of the hairstyle of Rarity of the First Five; copying the look of long-dead heroes never seemed to fall out of fashion—and the immaculate curves of her long eyelashes over sparkling azure eyes. Probably colored contacts to go along with the hair, but I had to admit they were an exquisitely tasteful match for her mauve coat and sea-green beret. It was too bad I didn't go in for the heavyset types, because there were plenty of stallions who did, and she was otherwise certainly easy on the eyes.

What the hay, a little conversation couldn't hurt. "I'm new in town," I said, pushing my costume glasses up the bridge of my nose. "I figured this was the simplest way to navigate to my new job."

"Oh! You're heading to work, too?" She glanced at the clock display above the automaton. "There certainly aren't many ponies who go to work at 5 p.m."

"Not many ponies want their automatons repaired during business hours." I gestured to my Mark, then glanced at hers. "What about you? A geode with a gem inside? I can't imagine there are many after-hours geologists."

She giggled. "No, silly. I'm a talent scout, finding diamonds in the rough. There's an audition tonight I don't dare miss."

"Ah," I said, my tolerance for small talk waning. "Well, good luck with that."

The airbus slowed and pulled out of the traffic lanes. A squadron of air police screamed by in the opposite direction, followed by two Guard patrols and an air-wagon with sirens ablare, all on a beeline toward Cloudsdale Square.

The unicorn's eyes widened as the bus accelerated back into traffic. "Oh, my."

"I imagine some criminal is on the loose," I said, then shrugged. "I'm sure the Sisters' finest will give him what-for. That's what we pay them for, right?"

"We pay police to keep the peace," she said. "To step into disputes, and to help ponies who make mistakes. But a criminal?" Her muzzle curled. "Somepony who chooses to reject Harmony. Standing against everything the Sisters hold dear. What could even drive a pony to such an extreme?"

I sat up a little straighter, and adjusted my glasses again. "It is an intriguing question, isn't it? But I don't think all of them see it that way. I read a book a few years ago—" I didn't mention that I'd written it myself, under a pseudonym—"that dissected the careers of famous criminals. Take Inseam, the greatest thief ever. She only stole from corporations and from the ultra-rich, and there's evidence that she set up a series of philanthropic shell organizations to donate the profits from all of her heists to the poor. Was that rejecting Harmony, or was that just rejecting a specific interpretation of Harmony that wasn't doing the world any good?"

"That's rather an insightful point," she said, leaning forward. "Come to think of it, I believe I recall that book. Wasn't it written by that 'cast-iron rat' fellow?"

"Cold iron."

"Right," she said. "He talked a great deal about criminals of the past, but he was something of an enigma himself, wasn't he? He seemed scornful to Inseam's charity, yet he didn't seem obsessed with personal wealth. He talked a great deal about proving himself and about being the best, yet he also described walking away from several heists that would have put his name down in history. He also had nothing but scorn for killers and thugs who would hurt ponies—which is incompatible for a desire for power." The unicorn tapped a hoof to her chin. "A pony like that…I think there's a rather specific need that drives him. Something he might not even be admitting to himself, but rather warping and romanticizing into a je ne sais quoi."

"Fascinating," I said, standing up. "Unfortunately, this is my stop."

The unicorn gave me a small smile and inclined her head. "Thank you for the conversation, darling. Enjoy your new job."

I stepped out of the airbus on the second-tier grid, on a walkway about twelve stories up from the cloud layer, and stared up at the Harmonicorp megatower that dominated the northeastern skyline. Below me were layers and layers of warehouses, and above were hundreds of stories of offices; here, nestled unobtrusively in the middle, lay the Accounting Department of their Honest Tea division.

Every Sunday at closing time, every single Honest Tea in Equestria bundled up their cash collections and used a specially target-locked teleport pad to send the week's bundled profits to Accounting. All of those bundles of large bills arrived in a single processing room filled with teleportation automatons, which fed the bundles one-by-one through a bill-scanner to verify the totals against each store's receipts. Then the magical seals on the vaults were opened and the compiled and repackaged bundle of bills was teleported inside. Meanwhile, return shipments of low-value coins were prepared and teleported, so that the stores were able to make change for the following day.

The plan was simplicity itself. I'd done the hardest part weeks ago—getting a fake security clearance and employee code for automaton repair contractor J.B. Greyson. The 200-kay bill I'd slipped the Honest Tea cashier was specially treated with a material that would melt into adhesive under the infrathaum light of the bill scanner. All I had to do was beat the legitimate repairpony to the machine once it jammed—trivial, since I was already on site—and I was in the controlled-access cash room with a giant bundle of bills worth nearly a billion bits. A simple tweak to one of the teleport automatons—which weren't target-locked, as they were reprogrammed for new stores all the time—and I could send that bundle anywhere in the city I wanted. As an extra precaution, I could check the manifests for a change bundle with the same weight as the one destined for the Vault, and reprogram that automaton to make the "deposit" as usual—as long as the weights matched, the only discrepancy flagged would be that one of the change bundles didn't reach its store, which was a common enough annoyance to have its own writeoff code in their reconciliation database.

I killed a bit of time at a food-stand around the corner, eating a late lunch of fried kelpcake—I wasn't a fan of fast food, but J.B.'s cover story required a strict budget, and there was little point to playing a role if you weren't willing to stick with it—and kept an eye on my ankle-watch. At exactly 5:12 p.m., I threw away my leftovers and walked around the corner. My keycard got me through the outer door, and I walked through the labyrinthine halls toward Processing, against the flow of outbound traffic from the hundreds of employees leaving for the day.

Next came the guard station securing the restricted area around the counting room. The equine element always introduced unknown and unknowable complications into any plan, but there was no reason for this to be anything but routine; all my paperwork was in order. Today's equine element was a bored-looking ex-Guard, if the military service medals on his civilian uniform next to the "P. REST" nametag were any indication. He was flanked by two hulking gryphons with massive goop guns holstered between their wings.

Ex-Sergeant P. Rest stared at me as I approached. "Got a scroll about a machine jam," I said, and he rolled his eyes and waved me forward. I walked through the magic detector—clean, of course—and then stood still for the field scan. Rest raised one eyebrow. "Hell of a signature you've got there, son."

That was the traits' fault, but I'd accounted for that by registering my race as Changeling; their thaumic signatures were typically the same sort of incoherent melange. "Everyone says that, sir. Sorry if it's a hassle."

Rest squinted at my badge, understanding dawning, then leafed through a filing cabinet in the guard station. "It does all seem in order. Can't say I recognize you, though."

I inwardly sighed. Guards who took their duties seriously were always so tedious. "First day on the job, sir. It's all there in the records."

"It is." He scribbled some notes down on the station record, then stood up and walked over to a side door. "In here, please."

I glanced at the hallway beyond the guard station, and the small, glass-windowed door to it that Rest wasn't opening. "Uh, but you just said everything was in order."

"It is. Just one more routine test."

I didn't like the sound of that—we'd just been through all the routine tests I knew—but the gryphons' trigger-claws were looking predictably itchy, so when Rest opened the door into a small and totally empty room, I tamped down my panic and followed him in. He closed the door behind us, hoofed a button labeled "PRIVACY" by the door (which obligingly lit up green), and said in a bored tone: "Hatched form, please."

I stared numbly at him for a moment. "What."

"The form," he said, voice strained, "you came out of your egg in."

"That's ridiculous!" I protested. "My thaumic signature matches—even changelings can't forge that!" That was the point of using it for ID validations, after all. "This is—that's ridiculous, that's discrimination, do you even know how many equal-treatment regulations you're breaking right now?"

"If you wanna go complain to ER, that's your business," Rest said. "My business is, either you shift back to hatched form, or you walk out of this room in hoofcuffs."

In my line of work, it's essential to be able to read your adversary. In a situation like that, some ponies are vulnerable to the emotional appeal. Some are willing to look the other way for a large sum of money. Some are amenable to…other favors. But Sergeant Rest was that most aggravating of guards: a scrupulous one. The best I was going to get out of him was the element of surprise.

So I sighed, brought a wing to my face, and bit off one of my sleep-gas feathers.

The instant it started glowing, his eyes widened and he lunged for the door, shouting. I tackled him, slamming him into the wall, and he had just barely thrashed free and landed a hard hoof upside my head when the feather went off.

I clamped my jaw shut, desperately forcing myself to breathe through my nose—the hydra trait in it used their miasma resistance to neutralize the gas. Rest's eyes instantly rolled up, and he sagged to the floor, breathing slowly and evenly. Outside, I heard a further shout, the scrambling of claws, and the ominous whine of a goop-gun cycling up. I was still groggy from the blow, making it hard to think, but I dimly realized that if I gave the guards time to sound a general alert, I could be in big trouble. A facility lockdown would ruin most of my escape routes.

I plucked my remaining flashbang, cracked open the door just enough to spit it outside, then slammed the door back shut and closed my eyes as the whump of detonation hit. I could barely hear the gryphons screeching above the ringing in my ears, followed by the deep coughing of blind-fired goop and the jarring shudders of random bursts impacting the nearby walls. Walking out into suppressive fire wasn't anyone's idea of a good time, so I fumbled a small ball of clay out of my saddlebags, plucked a nausea-gas feather, jabbed its quill into the weight, and then flung the makeshift shuttlecock as far out the door as I could. About ten seconds after the soft paf of its detonation, the firing finally stopped, replaced by the twin sounds of retching.

The pause had also given me time to recollect my wits. Not enough to do the smart thing and abort the mission, unfortunately—all my rattled head could focus on was how close I was to those billion bits, and how unfair it was that a ridiculous anti-changeling corporate policy was about to blow my scheme apart. Maybe my pride was still a little stung by that close encounter with Spike, too. Whatever the reason, I found myself shouldering the door open and dragging Rest's body over to the lockpad in the middle of the hallway. I yanked his keycard from his belt, straining against the retractible chain to swipe it through the lock, and when the light turned yellow I hauled his hoof over to the sensor until it registered his thaumic signature and turned green. I threw a fog bomb toward the retching gryphons as a parting gift, closed the hall door, and hauled back to buck it as hard as I could, right underneath the lock mechanism—

OW sweet motherrutting luna OW

—and as pain exploded through my senses, realized belatedly that my ankles were still strained from that earlier kick through the brick wall.

On the bright side, while I could barely walk any more, the screaming agony had done a fine job of waking me back up.

I fumbled two quick-absorb systemic opiates from the improvised medikit in my saddlebags, and crunched them between my molars, burning precious seconds as the gentle numbness kicked in. Drugs were like magic—harmful as crutches, occasionally necessary as tools—and right now a dull head was going to get me through the mission better than a screaming headache. I checked my work—the guard station lock had jammed, thank the Sisters, which meant that they weren't going to be sending anypony through the door after me…until the mages arrived and disabled the teleport-lock…and in exchange for buying myself the 30 seconds that I'd burned on downing my pain-pills, I'd just cost myself an exit. I gritted my teeth and flapped down the hallway toward Processing. Deal with that later. Finish the job first.

I carded open the door into Processing, which was a huge two-story room with walls lined with dual levels of automatons, a tangle of conveyor belts funnelling endless bales of bills toward a boxy central unit. The air smelt of burnt machine oil and tasted of copper, and a red light atop the bill-scanner in the center gave the dimly lit room a Tartaric feel. Not for the first time that day, I paused, tallying up another problem in the "stupid Jimmy mistakes" column: since the scanning unit had halted at my application of glue, about three-quarters of my billion bits were still scattered throughout half a roomful of smaller bundles. If I'd arrived without attracting suspicion, that wouldn't have been a show-stopper, but the clock was ticking and letting the scanner process and rebundle all the bills was out of the question. Well, there was nothing for it now but to take what I could—with an adversary as dangerous as Spike on my tail, I had a feeling I'd want as much cash as I could get to cloud my trail as I left Cloudsdale behind.

As I limped forward, I must have triggered an automatic sensor, because the room's lights sprang to life. I was startled enough to glance around, and a second-story window up above the door caught my eye. Two surprised ponies stared down through the glass at me. One turned to the other and mouthed something I couldn't make out, pointing at a panel in front of them. The other pointed at me, said something back, and dashed out of the room. Great—now I was really on a timer.

I hit the manual override on the scanner output tray, disengaged the bale-wrapper holding the loose pile of bills, and heaved it down the conveyor toward the Vault teleporter automaton, my hind ankles protesting severely. Then I jimmied open the automaton's maintenance panel, glancing at the grid of jumper pins that coded the delta to its destination. I'd practiced on these models in advance of the job enough so that I could have reset it in my sleep to hit my drop point; and with a number of precise tongue-flicks, I connected the shunts for the X coordinate and pulled the lever to lock it in. I quickly reset the grid for Y and Z, locking them into volatile memory with lever-pulls, then slammed the panel closed, switched the automaton to manual activation, and stabbed the starter. The central flywheel whined to life, gears spun up, and the air began crackling with magical energy. With a flash, a quarter of a billion bits had vanished, replaced with the subtle tang of ozone.

Time to leave.

In the distance, I heard a muffled shout, then a hard crunch of bending metal. I flew back over to the door and peeked down the hallway—what looked like a full squadron of guards was trying to break through the guard-station door I'd jammed, but for the moment my sabotage was holding. I said a silent thank-you to fickle fate for that spot of luck, then glanced around for an exit. In one direction, a hallway with two restrooms, an elevator with a prominent "OUT OF ORDER" sign, and a row of office doors out to the distance. In the other direction, a few vending machines and then a break room, with plush carpeting, a few sofas, and a giant picture window looking out over the city. Bingo. I dashed over to the break room, tapping on the glass—from the dull, metallic sound, it was about a centimeter of clearsteel, and given that I was inside a secured area, I wouldn't have expected any less.

That gave me one chance, at least.

I took a deep breath, fished another ball of clay out of my saddlebags, then flexed my wing and plucked my one remaining fog-feather, quickly tilting my head against the window and mashing the clay over the feather with a hoof. I jerked my head back, grabbed a chair, and lifted. I wasn't going to get any more bucks out of my legs today, but a short, sharp pressure at exactly the right point…

The feather went off, most of its cold confined to the window by the surrounding clay. With the mightiest heave I could manage, I swung the chair forward, metal leg aimed squarely at the flash-frozen spot.

There was a sharp crack. A hoof-sized network of cracks spiderwebbed out from the impact.

My heart sank. Not enough. If I'd just had a good buck left in me—

No! There would be time for regrets later, when I was safe. I backed away from the window and spread my wings—though my rapidly decreasing supply of flight feathers was going to hamper my speed, it was still better than galloping. I had just reached the T-junction when I skidded to a halt—at the far end of the corridor I was advancing into, a second squadron of guards had just burst from what looked like a stairwell door, and the lead gryphon was raising his goop gun ominously. At the same time, I heard a final sharp crack from my left, and the first guard squadron broke through the jammed door.

I dove back into Processing as the first goop-bursts spattered around me, wings already up to my muzzle as I rolled into cover. Out of smoke and flashbangs—rats. I plucked all three of my remaining nausea-gas feathers and flung them just outside the door—that would at least create a logjam as they tried to enter, and leave me the sleep feathers for when they got through.

I glanced wildly around the room. Ventilation ducts? Not likely, with the concentration of scents in here. Other doors? None; everything that entered or left this room did so through teleportation.


The few ponyport pads around the city were unicorn-staffed and spell-based, but automatons like this used the more reliable and machine-harnessable dragonfire technology. The downside was that there were giant screaming warnings on every automaton in existence: DO NOT USE WITH LIVING MATERIAL. When the dragonfire interacted with a living morphic field, that field reacted, altering in self-defense before the spatial shift could engage; the short of it was a very toasty creature that went nowhere.

I stared at my one remaining thaum-surge feather. What if an outside effect flattened a pony's morphic field for the split-second the dragonfire needed to take hold…?

The first guards reached the door. There was a deep cough, then an ominous splat half a meter to my right, before the retching started.

Right. This was going to hurt.

I vaulted the conveyor belt, ducked behind the bill scanner, and dove into the pad of the teleportation automaton, hoofing the activation switch along the way. I bucked the override lever as hard as I could, wincing, hoping that it would lock into place long enough to start the fire despite the organics on the platform. Then I bit down on my thaum-surge feather, tearing it from my wing and swallowing it, feeling my gag reflex fighting the twin wars of the throat-tickling and the nausea gas.

Then my world became fire.

Somewhere in my neck, something began strangling me from the inside out—

I gradually stirred to consciousness, opening my eyes to the familiar dimness of my hideout and the decidedly less familiar form of a white unicorn reclining on my sofa, humming to herself and cleaning a hoof-edge with one of my lockpicks.

Something about her appearance clicked—probably the curly mane. "You were mauve the last time I saw you," I rasped accusingly through a throat that sounded less sandpaper than sand.

She glanced up at me. "Good evening," she said brightly. "Next time, darling, you really should set a thaum-surge feather on the control panel of the automaton, timed to detonate immediately after you leave. Wiping the settings might have delayed me enough for Spike to get here first, even considering his unnecessary stunt to clear the street and keep civilians out of the line of fire." She smirked. "He's going to owe me dinner now, you know."

I closed my eyes, heart sinking.

"You're Rainbow Corps," I said quietly. "So is this Harmonization?"

"Come now, Jimmy, you're smarter than that," she said, then stood up to her full height. Her sides shifted, and brilliant white wings unfolded from the trait-pouches on her sides.

It took several seconds to click.

"…You're Inseam," I said.


"You know, when they called you the 'Alicorn of Avarice' I thought that was just an honorific."

She winced. "I'm no fan of that title. I should hope, from our conversation, you understand why."

"So…" I said, still piecing it together, "all the charity work…? Was that after they caught you and Harmonized you?"

She shook her head and clucked her tongue. "Jimmy, darling, I was never caught by the Corps. I became the Corps, when larceny no longer served the greater good. All my life, I've served Equestria…or did you somehow miss me on the money?"

There's a certain point at which a pony's capacity for surprise simply gets exceeded. I'd reached mine.

"So…you're Rarity," I said, then did a double-take. "Wait. Spike. You stole from your childhood friend?"

She chuckled, a hint of a blush on her cheeks. "That's our little in-joke. A century after we drifted apart, when Inseam sought him out for advice, and he helped me decide to found the Corps…he fell in love with me all over again, but as an adult, and with an adult mature enough to reciprocate. To this day he claims that Inseam's greatest heist was stealing his heart."

I struggled to my hooves and limped to the mirror. "So why tell me all this? You know the life I chose. You know I wouldn't have it any other way. Why I turned down Spike's offer."

"That wasn't our job offer, darling," Rarity said. "That was our placement exam. Some ponies, by the time we catch up to them, are ready to grab the gold ring and settle down. You still have the fire for fieldwork. Indeed, I'm confident you would be happy doing nothing but."

"If that's what you think," I said bitterly, "then Harmonize me now, because I know, like I know my name, that I could never be happy working for other ponies."

"Even Miss Yearling," Rarity said quietly, "took missions for the Crowns."

I froze. I turned slowly to her, fire in my eyes, a lump in my throat.

She was staring at me, eyes downturned, a quiet mixture of sympathy and intent. "It runs in the family, doesn't it? Your father, and your father's mother, and your great-granddam before them, all settled down, but they were never happy. There's a spark in you, Son of the Great Greymane, and you chose your name to keep that alive. Even your Mark is a relic of an age when the world still needed ponies like Daring, before all of the frontiers were conquered and the wilds were tamed." Rarity stepped forward and touched my shoulder with a hoof. "You're an adventurer, but you thought the only way to find adventure was to make your own."

"I'm a rat," I said. "And I'll never be anything but."

"Then be a rainbow rat. The iridescent iron rat. And let us point you at the problems that only your skills can fix."

I stared at Rarity…at Inseam. I felt the walls of my cage closing in. It was humiliating to think that there was somepony who understood me even deeper than I did myself…and also strangely exciting.

I said the only thing I could.

"Oh yeah?" I leaned forward, a rakish smirk spreading across my muzzle, charred and plucked wings spreading out. "You really think so, huh? Fine. If you can tell me just one problem only I can fix…I'm in."

Rarity's lips drew back in a Cheshire grin.

"As you were teleporting here," she said, "three billion bits was also stolen from the Accounting Department of Harmonicorps' Friendshipping Division."

I furrowed my brow in thought. "But they don't do automaton processing. It's all hoof-sorted. That's why I went to Honest Teas."

"Indeed." Her smile fell away. "Our mysterious thief took advantage of your chaos for a clearly premeditated snatch-and-grab—approximately a thousand kilograms of bills vanished with no teleport signal. In the process, they poisoned an entire roomful of accountants and sent four crippled guards to the hospital."

My jaw dropped. "What? Are you kidding?"

Rarity shrugged and stared. She didn't need to say anything; my mind was already racing through ways to find the bastard responsible. Now there was a criminal who needed Harmonization.

And who better than a rat, after all, to catch a rat?

I shook Rarity's hoof, and the Iridescent Iron Rat was born.
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