Chapter 1: A Well-Kept Secret
May 15th, 1004 New Solar Calendar
Though the thermostat read a comfortable 70 degrees, Rainbow Dash was sweating through her practice uniform. It was not as lightweight or breathable as the official Wonderbolts performance regalia, but it was not nearly heavy enough to cause a pony in peak physical condition to perspire.
She glanced at the clock again. Less than a minute had passed since she last looked at it. She groaned and buried her face in her hooves. For a pegasus of such incredible speed, one of life’s greatest challenges was staying still. The only thing keeping her from bursting through the cloud ceiling and taking to the sky was the fear of missing the news for which she so desperately waited.
March 13th, 1004 New Solar Calendar
A blue envelope sealed with a winged lightning bolt changed her life. Until that point, she had always seen the Wonderbolts as a far-off dream, something she would achieve on the painfully unspecific date of “someday.” When her trembling hooves opened that letter, however, it was thrust to the forefront of her consciousness. This was real – this was actually happening. The Wonderbolts had seen fit to request her presence at an “evaluation” in Cloudsdale. She remembered reading and rereading the letter in disbelief. She also remembered waking up shortly afterwards to a wall-eyed mailmare nervously prodding her.
She managed to talk her way out of weather duty until after the evaluation. The regional manager, a big Wonderbolts fan himself, gave her a sixty-day leave on the condition that should she not make the team, she would not take any vacation days for six months. Such a steep price would have normally drawn the famously competitive (and famously lazy) mare into a heated argument, but she was too star-struck to care. She had given him an overenthusiastic hug, squealed, and flew out the door.
For five weeks, she trained hard all day and slept soundly all night. She ate four meals a day simply to keep her performance-tuned body fueled. Her mornings were sore, her days were sweaty, and her evenings were exhausted. The only breaks she took were her weekly massages at the spa, as per Twilight Sparkle’s suggestion. Rainbow Dash had initially reacted with equal parts horror and contempt until Twilight showed her the source of the suggestion – The Wonderbolts’ Guide to Exercise and Nutrition. It recommended regular deep tissue massages during periods of heavy training to enhance flexibility, reduce soreness, and mitigate the risk of wing muscle injury.
Time passed quickly for Rainbow Dash. The hours melted into days, which stacked up into weeks. Before she knew it, the evaluation was three days away. She was using those last three days for recovery after her brutal training stint. Most pegasi would need at least a week to fully recover from such rigorous flying, but Rainbow Dash wasn’t most pegasi. The letter had said there would be two days of in-processing once she reached Cloudsdale, anyway, so she was not particularly worried about it.
On the big day, she flew off to Cloudsdale with great fanfare, thanks to the collaborative effort of Pinkie Pie and Mayor Mare. Her wings were still a little stiff, but the flight to Cloudsdale would loosen them up. Even at her leisurely pace, she made the trip in less than three hours. Most Cloudsdale pegasi used Ponyville as the four-hour landmark for making good time south.
As promised, she had to endure two days of red tape, legalese, consent & liability forms, equipment issue, lodging arrangements, and all other manner of administrative boredom. By the end of the second day, she was starting to believe that there was no evaluation, just three weeks of office work. She still believed that as she laid her head on her pillow that night in the Wonderbolts’ official training facility.
The illusion was broken early the next morning. Half a dozen pegasi in flight instructor uniforms burst into her room, screaming at her to get up and get moving! Dazed by the rude awakening and sudden bright lights, she fumbled with her practice uniform twice as long as usual while the instructors continued to bellow at her. Frightened within an inch of her life, Rainbow Dash was herded out of her room and into the predawn darkness.
All around her, the scene repeated itself with nearly twenty other stallions and mares. They all wore the same grey coveralls designed to mimic the flight characteristics of the official uniform. This was unexpected – the letter had said nothing about other pegasi being present.
The instructors wasted no time in putting the pegasi to work. They started with calisthenics that continued well past sunrise. One pegasus failed to complete a set of two hundred flutter kicks and was promptly escorted from the field by two instructors.
As the day wore on, the workouts changed. Some were speed challenges. Some were endurance races. Strength tests. Obstacle courses, with and without wings. More calisthenics. Weighted flights. Hoof runs. Weighted freefall stops. On and on, seemingly without end.
By the end of the day, Rainbow Dash was seeing stars. She had never worked herself this hard before. Six other pegasi had dropped out since morning, bringing the total number of recruits down to fourteen. The instructors dismissed them, allowing the exhausted trainees to shuffle back to their rooms for a quick shower before passing out on their beds.
The next day was no different. Her wake-up call arrived at exactly 4:30 AM in the same manner as the previous day. She was a little more adept at putting on her practice uniform, but her soreness and stiffness made it a painful ordeal. Outside, the winces on the other ponies’ faces made it clear that she was not alone in her suffering.
Workouts commenced. The day started with sprints around the cloud track. Just when they thought that particular workout was done, though, the instructors tacked on five extra laps. Once those were over, they brought out wing weights and made the trainees repeat the sprints.
The mind games continued throughout the morning. Sometimes an exercise would be extended, other times the instructors would cut it short and dive directly into the next one. By the time lunch came around, everypony was expecting to be dragged away halfway through their meal. The instructors, satisfied that they had gotten into the trainees’ heads, enjoyed an extra long break. The grey-clad recruits were left to stew in apprehension.
With coordinated precision, the instructors leapt up from their table and continued terrorizing the Wonderbolt hopefuls. The grueling pace was resumed until the end of the day. That evening, twelve trainees returned to their rooms, wings heavy and ears ringing.
Morning arrived with more trainers. Outside, she stood on line next to a teal-maned stallion who had a knack for getting unwanted attention from the instructors. After a particularly bad verbal lashing, he closed his eyes and shook his head. “I signed up to be a Wonderbolt, not a Guardspony,” he mumbled. He needed no instructor to escort him off of the field.
Rainbow Dash couldn’t help but share the sentiment. Sure, being a Wonderbolt was never going to be easy, but what did pushups and hoof runs have to do with being a stunt flier? Were there so many elite pegasi that they needed to have something else to thin the herd?
Whatever it was, Dash was determined to see it through. Not just anypony could claim the title of Iron Pony. If she needed to carry a fifty-kilogram weight on her back for seven miles, then that was what she would do. She was going to make it through this. She was going to be a Wonderbolt if it killed her.
Her days became a blur of pain, exhaustion, and shouting. More than once, she considered quitting. The idea always floated at the back of her mind. Occasionally, if the instructors felt they were being too easy on the class, they would taunt the trainees with the idea.
“If you quit now, you can go home to your nice, warm beds,” they would say. “You can go get a massage from a handsome stallion or a gorgeous mare and feel all your pain melt away. We’ll even give you some coffee and donuts for the trip home. Hay, you won’t even need to wing it. We’ll buy you a first-class airship ticket if you leave right now.”
Dash would have been sorely tempted by that offer if there were any stallion masseuses at Aloe and Lotus’ spa. During the few breaks they got, her wings were on fire. Otherwise, they were just numb. Her preparation training might as well have been a two-mile flight at an easy pace for all the good it did her. The thought of her fluffy cloud mattress made her legs tremble. She wanted nothing more than to stop, but she pressed on. Wonderbolts… Wonderbolts… Wonderbolts…
Two weeks into the evaluation, the class had dropped to only six pegasi. Rainbow Dash was on autopilot. Shouting was the only language she understood. Her entire body was numb. She was vaguely aware that she was here for some purpose, although she could hardly fathom it. In her mind, this was her new existence. There were memories of hanging out with a few other ponies, but those could have just been fever dreams. Her home was a small room that opened into a wide dome, and that was the whole world.
As the nineteenth day drew to a close, the instructors shouted something at the ragged group that none of them understood. Rainbow summoned all of her energy to perk up an ear. Since when did those ponies shout quietly?
“…repeat myself… bothered to… tomorrow… leave bed… and meals only. You’re… training. If… problems, hit the… nightstand and the docs… otherwise, we… you again. Is… clear?”
The trainees nodded out of habit. The instructors pointed towards the rooms and the grey-clad pegasi mindlessly shuffled towards them. Rainbow Dash removed her drenched uniform and threw it down the laundry chute. She stood under the shower cloud for a few minutes before drying herself off and collapsing on the bed.
May 13th, 1004 New Solar Calendar
Her first clue that something was amiss was the fact that she woke up naturally. She had begun to wake up shortly before the instructors barged into her room simply out of routine, but something still felt… off. There was no clock in her room, so she couldn’t tell the time, but it certainly felt later than four thirty. After ten minutes passed with no instructors, she was certain something was ahoof.
She decided to use this respite to ready her uniform for the day. Silently, she slipped off her bed and opened the drawer in her meager dresser. Slowly reaching inside, she felt around for her coveralls and goggles. Nothing. She began to panic. Where were her uniforms? What was she going to do without a uniform? It had become like a second skin to her. Even though she didn’t normally wear clothes, she felt extra naked without the drab flight suit.
Dash turned her room upside down in search of a spare. Under her bed, in the nightstand, in the bathroom… nothing. No uniforms to be found.
Without thinking, she opened the door to the training facility. What she saw stopped her dead. There were no obstacles. No weights. No observation towers. No megaphones. No blackboards listing calisthenics and repetitions. The facility was devoid of anything except a hoof track on the cloud surface and a flight track halfway up the towering walls.
Her confused stare was broken by a sharp voice from her side.
“Hey, dummy! Get back in your room!”
Rainbow Dash immediately complied. It took her a few seconds to realize the strangeness of the instructor’s command. Instructors don’t tell us to go back into our rooms. They make us get out of our rooms.
Still confused, she returned to her bed, quickly drifting off to sleep.
May 13th, 1004 New Solar Calendar
When she awoke again, the first thing on her mind was the pain. Everywhere. It was like the time Applejack had zapped her with the cattle prod except it wouldn’t stop. Every muscle burned. The past three weeks had taken their toll on Dash’s young body.
When she finally mustered the courage to move, she discovered that her legs refused. She could hardly turn her head without pain lancing through her neck. Her wings were a lost cause. Breaths were shallow and ragged. It even hurt to blink. Lying in bed for so long after weeks of grueling workouts had nearly cemented her muscles in place.
In her mental state, however, she couldn’t tell what was wrong, only that there was definitely something wrong. She tried calling for help, but her voice was shot after weeks of replying at the top of her lungs. Panic began to rise in her once more. The instructor outside her room would be able to help, but Dash couldn’t get his attention. She was paralyzed on her bed, overwhelmed by the systemic pain flooding her mind. She was left with one option – pass out.
So she did.
May 13th, 1004 New Solar Calendar
“Ah, so it appears you’re still with us, after all.”
She recognized the voice. Rainbow Dash couldn’t tell where she had heard it before, but she had definitely heard it somewhere. Was it one of her friends? No, it was deeper than most of theirs. Still feminine, but almost… sultry. It had an arrogant flair to it that didn’t fit any of her friends.
Dash opened her eyes and instantly regretted it. The bright yellow coat of the mare facing her was too much. The light in her eyes infuriated the headache raging through her skull. She weakly groaned in response.
“I guess the painkillers haven’t completely kicked in yet.”
Though the voice was maddeningly familiar, it was also painful. Her head rebelled at the noise in her ears, causing her to squirm in discomfort.
A different voice spoke up, this one quiet and completely unfamiliar. “I’ll give her a booster dose, but that’s all I can do.” To Dash’s relief, he added, “I’d also recommend that you speak more softly. She’s probably fighting a splitting headache on top of everything else.”
“Right. I forgot how I felt after evals.”
So the voice belonged to a yellow mare that had gone through the evaluation? That narrowed down the list to a name with which Rainbow Dash was very familiar.
“Very good,” she chuckled. “Although I’m not sure whether the fact that you recognize me just by my voice is cute or creepy.”
Dash cautiously opened one eye. The Wonderbolt stood by her bed, smirking down at the incapacitated pegasus. She wasn’t wearing her flight suit or goggles. The only thing identifying her as a member of Equestria’s top flight demonstration team was her presence in the otherwise restricted facility.
“Well, there… there aren’t m-many mares that l-look like you,” she wheezed. Her mind was slowly emerging from the fog, and the last thing she wanted was to look like a crazed fangirl during the most important tryout of her life. She had a valid point, though. Even among the pegasi, who were known for their vibrant colors, it was difficult to find a Spitfire look-alike. Such bold colors were rare together.
“True enough, I suppose.” Her tone softened, losing its haughty edge. “So… are you okay? The team and I weren’t able to watch the evaluation this year, and I heard that the instructors ran a little wild.”
Dash could only moan in response. Even as the painkiller began to take effect, she was still in agony.
“I guess that’s answer enough,” said Spitfire, examining Dash’s injuries. “You look beat to Tartarus, and that’s only the visible stuff. I bet your muscles feel like pincushions right about now, huh?”
She nodded meekly.
“Not surprising. Still, you’re in better shape than most of your class. Do you know that you flew the equivalent of twice around the world over those nineteen days?” Spitfire trotted to the other side of the bed. “Did almost ten thousand pushups, too. Pretty wild, huh?”
The injured pegasus grumbled something in response. Spitfire could only guess at what curses the young recruit had wished upon the instructors.
“Well, you’ll be glad to know it’s over. Today and tomorrow are recovery days, and we select the new members on Friday. Spread your wings, please.”
Dash craned her neck as far as it would go, giving the Wonderbolt an embarrassed look. Though there were many stallions (and more than a few mares) who would kill to have the Wonderbolts’ captain ask them that, she wasn’t one of them.
Spitfire, who was used to preening her teammates, took a while to realize how awkward her statement had been. “Um… I didn’t mean… it’s just… your feathers are all ruffled.” Her yellow face flushed with a hint of red. “Y-you need them straightened, or you won’t fly right for a week.”
“Ugh… I don’t think I’ll by flying for a week, period,” Rainbow mumbled. In spite of herself, she rolled on her stomach, thankful for the painkiller’s numbing effects. Her wings rested limply at her sides as Spitfire began her work. Though it was a bit awkward having a mare she hardly knew doing something so intimate, she couldn’t deny that it felt good.
After both wings had been preened to Spitfire’s standards, she folded them back to Dash’s sides. The young flier sighed in contentment. Spitfire was glad to finally see her feeling better. The Wonderbolt’s mischievous conscience, however, would not let her leave the room without having the final word. She leaned over and quietly whispered into Dash’s ear.
“Felt good, huh? You should feel it when Soarin’ does it.”
Rainbow’s eyes shot open at the thought. Blood rushed to her face as she blushed a deep red. Spitfire left the room before the full implication of her statement dawned on the young flier.
May 15th, 1004 New Solar Calendar
The door to the waiting room opened, revealing a fully uniformed Spitfire. She silently motioned for Rainbow Dash to follow her as she returned to the adjacent room. Dash got to her hooves cautiously, knowing that the fate of her dreams lie just a few meters in front of her. The world felt foreign and surreal. Everything looked the same, but she could sense that life-changing events were about to unfold – the Wonderbolts were choosing their new team.
Inside was a semi-circular conference table packed from the same smooth clouds that made up the walls and floor. There were no windows. The translucent ceiling was the only source of light. An entire wall had been replaced with a white board, covered in names and figures written in unintelligible chicken scratch. She could barely make out her own name from the list on the far left side. Figures were arranged in messy rows and columns. Some were circled or underlined; others were crossed out or scribbled over. The values they represented were a mystery to her.
“I know it’s difficult to tell from Soarin’s writing,” Spitfire said as she closed the door, “but you were at the top of your class in nearly everything. I suppose I should have expected nothing less from a filly with your list of accomplishments.”
She turned back to Rainbow and failed to hide a giggle. “By the way, you can lose the facemask.”
Dash fumbled with the hooded attachment, glad to be rid of it. Over the course of the evaluation, she had come to strongly associate the garment with pain.
As she finally escaped the grey mask, she turned her attention back to Spitfire. The yellow mare was back in her Wonderbolts uniform, but similarly unmasked. Dash desperately hoped she would soon be able to wear the same uniform. The sleek lines and bold colors represented the culmination of her life’s dreams since before she could flutter her wings fast enough to hover.
“I realize it’s been a tough few weeks,” the Wonderbolt captain began. “I apologize for the instructors’ rough treatment. We’re usually at home during the evaluation to make sure they don’t get too out of hoof, but it didn’t work out that way this year. This season’s how schedule started a bit earlier than normal.”
Spitfire trotted to the board, examining the messy writing. “Despite the instructors’ best attempts, though, you put up some pretty impressive figures. Everypony who’s ever met you should have expected world-class sprint times and top speeds, but a mare as small as you shouldn’t really be able to do the fifty-kilo/fifty-k flight so quickly.” She squinted at a particularly messy value. “From what I’m seeing, the only area that could really use some work is your maneuverability, and that’s nothing that can’t be improved.”
The confidence that had been building up as Spitfire praised her vanished with the last sentence. “W-what do you mean?” Dash asked, her voice quivering. “I can do way better! I was exhausted the whole time!”
“Dash,” Spitfire interjected.
“How can you expect me to perform my best when I’ve been constantly working all day for weeks?”
“Dash…” the Wonderbolt captain’s tone had dropped to a growl.
“Not to mention the dozen ponies yelling in my face the whole time! I know a Wonderbolt show puts a lot of pressure on you, but at least then they’re not screaming that you’re a disgrace to all pegasi!”
The young pegasus froze, her next words dying in her throat. Spitfire shook her head and sighed. “When I say it can be improved, I mean with professional training.” She cocked her head knowingly. “You know, the kind provided by a group of ponies with some expertise in that area?”
The realization took a moment to dawn on Rainbow. Her eyes widened at the implication. “You… you mean…”
Spitfire held up a hoof. “Don’t get ahead of yourself, Dash. I can’t offer you a slot on the team just yet.”
Dash’s heart sunk yet again. “What? Why not? What’s stopping you?”
“You’ve attracted some, uh…” Spitfire bit her lip, searching for the right words. “Unique interest.”
Still lost in the up-and-down explanation given, Dash glared at her idol in suspicion. “What do you mean, ‘unique interest’? Why can’t you give me a straight answer for once?”
Grimacing, Spitfire ran a hoof through her mane. “I can’t really tell you that. Not just yet.”
“So you can’t tell me why you can’t tell me?” Dash’s eyes narrowed. A small part of her mind was surprised at how angry she sounded, but the past three weeks of abuse and the impenetrable explanation had worn her patience down to nothing. She wanted answers, and no amount of wordplay was going to get in her way.
Spitfire sighed and glanced at a set of double doors on the opposite side of the room. Raising her voice not-so-subtly, she called out, “Maybe it would be easier for somepony else to explain things. Somepony who’s actually authorized to talk about it to prospective recruits.”
“Sounds good to me,” a muffled, male voice replied from the other side. The doors swung open noiselessly. Spitfire stood up straight, snapping a crisp salute to the stallion trotting into the conference room. He returned the gesture immediately.
Dash’s jaw fell open as she stared at the new arrival. She wasn’t sure what surprised her more. It might have been the dopey grin on his face after weeks of the instructors’ clenched-fist expressions. It could have been his inexplicable Los Pegasus surfer accent. Maybe it was the fact that he was a unicorn walking on clouds. After a moment, though, she was certain that the most surprising thing about his presence was simply the fact that Twilight’s brother was somehow involved.
His grin widened at Dash’s recognition. “Good! I was worried you might have forgotten about me.”
Rainbow was speechless.
The smile faltered a bit. “I, uh, heard you did pretty well in the evaluation.”
He glanced at Spitfire, whose only response was to flourish her foreleg in a gesture that said get on with it.
Clearing his throat, he resorted to his least favorite approach – blunt professionalism. “Rainbow Dash, you’re a good flier. You don’t need me to tell you that. But, more importantly, you’re a model Equestrian citizen – dedicated, brave, and loyal to a fault. You’ve proven that to the world ever since you met my sister. If you didn’t have you heart set on the Wonderbolts, I’d write you a recommendation for the Royal Military Academy Sandhoof.”
He turned to the wall-sized white board, slowly walking the length of the room as he read Rainbow’s performance marks. “It looks like you’ve taken a different path, though. I’m no flight expert, but even I can tell these are world-class numbers. You’ve dedicated yourself to flying as much as I’ve dedicated myself to being a Guardspony, and the results speak for themselves.”
Reaching the last column, he turned his gaze to Spitfire. “Seeing as you’re the only member actually present, I think you should make the pitch. You’d know how to explain it better than me, anyway.”
Spitfire considered the proposition for a moment, nodding in agreement. She took a deep breath before beginning a speech she had spent the last three days perfecting.
“Dash, you… you remind me of myself at your age. Full of energy, deeply motivated, and one hay of a flier. More importantly, as Captain Armor said, your loyalty is beyond question, even to the point of being foolhardy. It takes either an incredibly loyal or incredibly stupid mare to put herself between a newly freed Discord and Princess Celestia.” She allowed herself a tiny smirk. “Frankly, I imagine it’s a bit of a mix.
“The point I’m making is that you’re the type to go down swinging rather than selling your friends down the river for personal gain. That alone is rare enough, but with you, it comes with the physical ability to follow through on your loyalty. You can do some real good in this world, Dash, if you choose to.”
Rainbow Dash listened to the praise with a skeptical frown tugging at the corners of her mouth. “This sounds a lot like you’re trying to convince me to join the Guard or something, and that just isn’t my game. No offense, Shiny.”
Shining Armor waved his hoof dismissively. “None taken. But I think you should hear Spitfire out.”
Dash turned her attention back to her fillyhood idol. “So, what is this, really? A job in the Guard? Some kind of equinitarian position? Those don’t really sound my speed, you know?”
Spitfire hesitated for a moment before replying. “We can’t really tell you what’s involved until we’re more sure of your intentions. I can tell you that it isn’t a Royal Guard enlistment and it definitely isn’t an equinitarian job.” She put her hoof to her chin, lost in thought for a moment. “Well, maybe in an abstract, long-term way of thinking… but definitely not short-term.”
She glanced back at Dash before addressing Shining Armor again. “I think we should just tell her.”
The Captain of the Guard raised a suspicious eyebrow. “You mean right now? Before the non-disclosure agreement? And what about the psychological assessment?”
Spitfire rolled her eyes. “First of all, sir, I would remind you that you’re only here because the pony who really should be here is unavailable at the moment. Second, this mare’s been chosen as the bearer of the Element of Loyalty. Even if she refuses, she won’t spill her guts to anypony if the Princesses tell her not to. Celestia herself couldn’t come up with a better NDA.”
Visibly annoyed, the Wonderbolt continued. “As for her mental state, well, she’s faced off against some of the most deadly monsters and powerful enemies Equestria’s ever seen. She was offered the chance of a lifetime by Nighmare Moon’s illusions, but she turned it down to help her friends. She pummeled her way through hundreds of Changeling drones during your wedding ceremony and she didn’t stop until she was captured. The only time she ever cracked was when Discord gave her a shot of chaos straight to the brain.” She brushed a wayward strand of her mane that had fallen into her face during her speech. “Psychological state assessed.”
Shining Armor shifted uncomfortably. “I guess you’ve got a point.” He cleared his throat, trying to make his voice sound as official as possible. “In the absence of the Commandant, I hereby authorize you to extend the official offer to her.”
Dash’s mind grasped at the first concrete hint in the entire conversation. “Offer? What offer?”
A ghostly hint of a smile played across Spitfire’s face. “There is a specialized group of ponies, Dash. An elite unit that operates in total secrecy to make Equestria safe for the rest of us. Their recruiting is very highly selective, and for good reason. These ponies are the tip of the spear; the knife in the darkness that silences threats before they even reach our shores. They are the best of the best - the most loyal Equestrians carrying out the most dangerous missions.”
She paused, allowing the smile to fully reveal itself. “And they want you.”
Rainbow Dash sat on her haunches, processing everything she had just been told. It sounded like something out of one of Twilight’s thriller novels, or maybe a conspiracy theory. Her head swam with questions, but one rose above all the others.
“But… what about the Wonderbolts?”
The smile on Spitfire’s face grew wider. “You mean that elite group of ponies loyal to the Princesses? The best fliers from around Equestria performing the most dangerous stunts?”
Rainbow’s eyes widened as she made the connection. “No way. No. Way.”
The grin on Spitfire’s face remained unchanged. “Absolutely. Every member of the Wonderbolts was first a member of this unit, known as RAID.”
Confusion and disbelief swelled within Rainbow. “How have I never head of this before? I mean, any of it? I think I’d be the first to know if all of the Wonderbolts were all former secret agents.”
The Wonderbolt leader, whose past Rainbow Dash now seriously doubted, shook her head at the accusation. “Listen to yourself, Dash. You’d know if they were secret agents? Nopony is supposed to know about RAID, and they’re not going to let it slip. As far as anypony else is concerned, there’s a training period before joining the Wonderbolts. The few ponies that doesn’t satisfy only ever find things redacted due to ‘protection of proprietary secrets’.”
Dash slowly shook her head in disbelief. “So… so you’re all, like… spies?”
Spitfire’s face twisted in a playful grimace. “Ugh, spies? Nah, they’re much more versatile than spies. RAID is actually an acronym for their primary mission set – Recon, Assault, Interdiction, Demolition. And yes, as the name suggests, raids.” Her grin grew even wider. “Guys like Con Mane may get all the glory, but they’d fall flat on their flanks without support from RAID.”
“But you’re still, like, super-secret black-ops ponies? Going and doing missions all over Equestria?”
“All over the world.”
Maybe this wasn’t so bad after all. “And you do everything by air?”
“Most everything.” Spitfire grin changed to a wry smirk. “I hope you don’t mind getting wet.”
Dash chose not to dwell on the unsettling remark. “A-and this is the only way to get into the Wonderbolts? This RAID thing?”
“Sure is. The Wonderbolts were actually started to recruit the best fliers around for RAID’s parent unit.”
It seemed surreal to Dash. Three weeks ago, she was ready for a life on display. She was going to perform in front of sellout stadiums and packed waterfronts. Paparazzi would hunt her down and foals would beg for her autograph. She would have her pick of any stallion in Equestria. Hay, she’d have her pick of most of the mares, too, should she ever decide to sample from the other side of the buffet.
But now, her lifelong idol was telling her the dark secret behind it all. The Wonderbolts were a front for a covert team of pegasi who went around the world doing whatever secret things they did. Probably awesome and dangerous stuff – just what Rainbow Dash wanted. Granted, it wasn’t in front of a crowd, but if this was the only way to get there…
Spitfire stretched her wings, shaking out the bright yellow feathers in a common pegasus gesture that said get ready to fly. “How about I show you exactly what we are?”
Dash recoiled in surprise at the suggestion. “But I thought it was, y’know, all secret and stuff?”
The same infuriatingly cryptic grin crossed Spitfire’s face. “I don’t think the Element of Loyalty’s chosen avatar will rat us out. I feel safe revealing a classified location to a pony who is functionally incapable of betrayal.” She nodded towards the double doors. “Come on. Let’s ride some thermals down.”
She led Rainbow down the corridor to a staircase that cut through the densely packed clouds to the base of the city. Even during her youth, Dash had avoided the airspace directly below the city. Though the rumors of sewage dropping from the city were provably false, it still held a reputation as someplace to avoid. She had never seen it from so close before. In a flash of conspiratorial paranoia, Dash wondered if agents of the shadowy organization who utilized the passage had not purposefully engineered that reputation.
They both spread their wings and took flight, catching an updraft that slowed their descent to a manageable pace as they spiraled down from Cloudsdale to the forest below. Dash felt the strain of the last three weeks in her stiff wings as the overtaxed muscles twinged in protest with every movement. She silently thanked whichever weather manager had scheduled a warm day, relaxing in the soothing air currents flowing over her barely recovered body.
The pair landed in the forest beneath Cloudsdale near an unremarkable rock face jutting from the moist dirt. Rainbow Dash watched in confusion as Spitfire began examining the stone carefully, mumbling to herself.
“I can never remember which one it is. I get why they have to disguise it, but couldn’t they make it something that doesn’t look like the entire rest of the wall? For Celestia’s sake, I hate having to f- ah! Found it!”
She stepped backwards and remained completely still. For a moment, Dash thought the Wonderbolt had really lost it.
A magical glow enveloped Spitfire, who took it in stride. A voice from the rock wall declared, “Identity confirmed. Spitfire – Active Wonderbolt. Access granted.”
The glow faded. The ground rumbled, sending pebbles falling down the rocky outcropping. Rainbow looked around nervously, not noticing that her escort was unfazed.
“Spitfire, what’s – whoa!”
The ground beneath them began to sink into the forest floor. Several meters of dirt were followed by metal cross-spars and reinforcing braces. She was on… an elevator?
As their descent continued, the shaft opened up into a cavernous space below. It was at least as big as the Wonderbolts’ training facility back up in Cloudsdale. Magical lights flooded the chamber with harsh white light. From her vantage point, Rainbow could tell that the entire space had been carved straight from the rock. Its purpose, however, was still a mystery. It had no defining characteristics. In fact, it looked abandoned.
Spitfire bailed out of the elevator, opting instead to glide down to the stone floor. Rainbow followed, touching down long before the elevator would make it to the ground.
“Where are we?” she asked incredulously.
“This,” said Spitfire, motioning to the facility’s interior, “is the Hub.”
Dash shot her a look of disbelief. “The Hub? What kind of name is that?”
“It’s the center of operations. Center? Hub? See the connection?” the Wonderbolt asked, touching her hooves together in pantomime.
“Dumb name, if you ask me.”
Spitfire rolled her eyes. “Whatever. Just follow me.”
The pair trotted towards a natural fissure in the wall. It let to a vault-like metal door that looked like it could take the full brunt of a dragon’s fury without so much as a scorch mark. It identified Spitfire in a similar way to the rock face had done on the surface. The clanging sound of metal on metal could be heard as the massive lock rods in the door retracted, allowing it to silently swing open on perfectly machined hinges. Spitfire trotted inside, followed shortly by her ever-more-confused companion.
Once they both cleared the hatch’s frame, it automatically closed, clanging the lock rods back into position and hissing as it sealed. They were alone again.
The new room looked like a small amphitheater. Rows of seats faced a stage big enough for one or two ponies to address the gathered crowd. One side supported a blackboard that had clearly been used for years. The other side was blank, likely for use as a projection screen. Above the stage, Dash saw a circular seal she didn’t recognize. A spear was crossed over a lightning bolt similar to that on the Wonderbolt’s uniform, both over a field of black. Around the edge, the words Audacia, Fortitudo, Officium were written in relief.
Spitfire led her to the front of the room and motioned for her to sit in one of the seats below the stage. She complied, still in awe at everything around her. The Wonderbolt pointed at the seal above the stage.
“That’s us as we’re known today. RAID is a self-sufficient unit that lives by those words. In the earliest days, we were the Royal Guard’s 1st Special Operations Group – Clandestine Activities Division.”
She trotted down from the stage, continuing her introduction. “When the operational demands became too much, 1st SOG-CAD was quietly decommissioned and restructured as a standalone unit. Since then, we’ve taken the missions unsuited for agents of Her Majesty’s Secret Service or operators of 1st SOG. If you really look into accounts of the Battle of Platinum Ridge, you’ll see hints of our involvement.” The same mischievous grin momentarily flashed across her face. “All deniable, of course. Nothing that couldn’t be explained as a stroke of good luck.”
The history lesson floated past Rainbow’s ears, unnoticed. She was drowning in disbelief at everything that had been revealed. Spitfire took a seat next to the stunned young pegasus, her voice taking on a much softer tone.
“I know this is a lot to process all in one day. Nopony expects you to make a decision quickly. Took me the better part of three days.” She wistfully looked off into the distance. “You know, back when Equestria was still cooling down.”
She smirked at the joke, but quickly returned to her point. “Now, I know you’ve got a bit of a reputation for being impulsive. This is too big of a decision to make on the spot, though. You’re giving a minimum of five years to this commitment, not to mention that it’s dangerous and incredibly demanding.” Her voice was steel as she ended her warning. “If you accept this, you might not walk away from it.”
Dash nodded weakly. “Yeah, I… I get it,” she replied in a dry, raspy voice.
“Do you?” Spitfire shifted to face Rainbow more directly. “Remember Tornado Duty? You took the job of a major metropolis as a two-bit town in the middle of nowhere. Not only that, but you wanted to break the wingpower record. That’s a step above ambition, Dash, That’s… pushing insanity. While RAID operatives are often called ‘crazy’ by their support teams, they’re firmly grounded in reality, believe me.”
Through the disbelief and wonder, Rainbow managed to scowl at the implied accusation. “Hey, we could have totally broken that record if it weren’t for the feather flu outbreak that hit Ponyville that month. And we still got it to work, even with all those pegasi missing! You were there, remember?”
Spitfire chuckled at the response she had provoked. “Yeah, I remember.”
“Lot of help you were, too,” Rainbow mumbled to herself.
Grinning and shaking her head, Spitfire got to her hooves. “Well, it wasn’t the most official of tests, but you’ve passed my last hurdle. I’ll show you to your temporary quarters. There’s food in there for lunch and dinner. If you have any questions or just want to talk some more, hit the button by the bedside. If it’s before ten o’clock in the evening, I’ll be there.” She looked Dash squarely in the eyes. “I’ll be outside your room at nine o’clock tomorrow morning to escort you back to Ponyville. Until then, I want you to think about what you’re getting yourself into.”
Nodding in acknowledgement, Dash followed Spitfire out of the briefing room. The elder pegasus made one final point.
“I hope everything I’ve said has gotten you to consider this with a little more scrutiny than you usually give, Rainbow Dash. That said, if you join…” She paused to find the right words. “You will be a part of the greatest fighting force this world has ever seen.”
May 16th, 1004 New Solar Calendar
Despite the lingering exhaustion from the evaluation, Rainbow Dash had not yet slept. She spent the night tossing and turning, staring into the distance while the previous day’s events played themselves out over and over again in her head. Phrases continually repeated themselves, echoing Spitfire’s words for hours on end.
Every member of the Wonderbolts was first a member of this unit.
She rolled onto her side, hoping in vain that she would finally find the position that would allow her to enter a peaceful state of slumber. The sheets and blanket made her sweat, but she shivered without them. Aches and pains sparked her nerves with every movement. Her body was entirely spent, but her mind was racing.
You can do some real good in this world.
An exasperated sigh escaped Dash’s lips. The utter disbelief of the unexpected revelation had given way to a feeling of reverse progress. One step forward, three steps back. She was so certain that, after completing the evaluation in one piece, the Wonderbolts were the next stop. To have that dream set so far into the future frustrated her to no end. She had arrived ready to fly for crowds of thousands, but the request made of her would keep her in the shadows.
They are the best of the best - the most loyal Equestrians carrying out the most dangerous missions.
The description of RAID, though, had not escaped her attention. If she was to be entirely honest with herself, she had only started listening in earnest when Spitfire mentioned “dangerous missions”. Danger was fun. Danger was exciting. It was half of the Wonderbolts’ allure. Every performance rested upon the razor’s edge. One small mistake could cost the team member his or her life and potentially another member’s as well. But they faced the danger in front of stadiums full of spectators and with smiles on their faces. Dash could hardly fathom a better way to spend her life.
The more she considered, though, the more she realized that she had already distinguished herself in the defense of Equestria. Even when she had finally performed a Sonic Rainboom, nothing compared to the sense of pride she felt for her friends and her home after defeating Nightmare Moon and Discord. If something wanted to get at them, they would have to go through her.
The tip of the spear.
Dash shifted again, gazing into the blue glow cast by her electronic clock. A worried voice in her head asked what else was lurking in the darkness, threatening her home and her friends. What was out there that required an entire secret unit to counter? Was Equestria less secure than she believed?
The thought of some hidden menace plotting against Equestria should have scared her. It should have made her thankful for the dozens of meters of rock and metal between her and the world, glad to be hidden away in the inner sanctum of a shadowy organization.
It only made her mad.
You will be a part of the greatest fighting force this world has ever seen.
Dash rolled onto her back, staring at the ceiling. She dismissed Spitfire’s accusations of impulsiveness.
I’m not impulsive. I’m decisive. And I’ve decided.
May 16th, 1004 New Solar Calendar
Not knowing her way around the Hub, Dash stood outside the door to her temporary quarters. She had only gotten a few hours of sleep, but she felt as sharp and focused as ever. A sense of purpose had settled deep within her, causing a near-supernatural recovery overnight. Her body was still in pain, but her mind was clear.
To her fresh senses, the minutes before Spitfire’s arrival seemed an eternity. Nine o’clock was approaching. Spitfire would enter through the double doors to the barracks, and Rainbow Dash would forever alter the course of her own life with two simple words.
A lifetime later, the doors opened just as the minute hand on the clock above them clicked to point straight up. Spitfire appeared in her dress uniform, as crisp and professional as on the first day of instruction at the Wonderbolts Academy. She strode un to Dash, surprised to see the infamously lazy pegasus awake so early after such an ordeal.
With an eyebrow raised, she asked a simple question.
For everything I care about – for my friends, for Ponyville, for Cloudsdale, for the Princesses, and for myself.
Dash’s answer was equally simple.
NEXT CHAPTER: “New Moves”
May 16th, 1004 New Solar Calendar
Rainbow Dash awoke without pain for the first time in weeks. She was still stiff from head to tail, but the constant, throbbing soreness had abated. It no longer hurt to breathe. She knew the pain would return once she began moving again, but the relief of being able to lie down in comfort was the most beautiful sensation she had felt since her arrival in Cloudsdale.
She looked around the room, moving her head as little as possible. It was not as sparsely furnished as the one in the Wonderbolts’ training facility, but her new accommodations were by no means extravagant. Her dresser now had three drawers instead of two, the floor was carpet instead of industrial-grade stratus cloud, and the lights looked like something that belonged in a domestic environment rather than in a coal mine. It wasn’t the Princesses’ chambers, but it would do.
The addition for which Dash was most thankful was the clock hanging high on the wall. She hadn’t looked at a clock once during her three-week training stint. It amazed her how much she missed knowing the time of day. She suspected it was just another mind game the instructors had devised. Blurry memories of shouting and pain from the weeks before began gnawing at the edges of Rainbow’s mind. She pushed them back into a dark corner of her consciousness. No need to dwell on them now.
Instead, she turned her thoughts to Spitfire’s plan for the day. The Wonderbolt captain had graciously allowed Rainbow Dash to sleep in until nine o’clock. After that, though, the day was going to be packed. Simply explaining everything had taken nearly an hour.
Dash cautiously rolled over, taking extra care not to put too much strain on her tender muscles. If the rest of her day was going to be work, then she was going to enjoy her last twenty minutes of rest. She closed her eyes, relaxing into her mattress and enjoying the silence. She didn’t realize how much she missed peace and quiet until it had been so forcefully taken from her.
A hoof knocked on the door far too early for Rainbow’s liking. She would have drawn the covers over her head, but her legs were too stiff. She settled for an irritated sigh.
“Rainbow Dash? Are you up yet?” Spitfire’s muffled voice asked through the door.
“Mmm. Five more minutes.”
“Nice try.” The door swung open, revealing Spitfire in her Dress Blues uniform. It had clearly received more attention than her mane. Her tie clip, thunderbolt collar devices, and ceremonial goggles were polished to a high sheen. The shirt was pressed and neatly cuffed just above the knee, proudly displaying her Captain rank insignia on the sleeves. Though popular opinion held that Soarin’ looked better in the Dress Blues, the uniform still gave the Wonderbolts’ captain a sharp and professional appearance.
She gently prodded the sleepy pegasus. “Come on. You know how much we have to get done today. No time to waste.”
Dash grumbled and groaned as she slowly slipped out of bed. “How can you stand getting up so early?”
“It’s nine o’clock, Rainbow,” Spitfire deadpanned.
“Yeah, but you had to get that uniform on and make it look all… shiny.”
“I suppose it didn’t occur to you that I could have had everything polished beforehand?”
Dash considered the idea for a moment. “Yeah, I guess that’d work…”
Spitfire chuckled at Rainbow’s sluggishness. “You really aren’t a morning pony, are you?”
“Who is a morning pony?”
“You’d better be one pretty soon,” Spitfire retorted. “RAID training starts at zero-six-hundred every day.”
Rainbow cocked her head at the Wonderbolt. “Zero-six-hundred?”
“Six in the morning.”
Rainbow’s jaw hung open. “Do you all hate sleep or something?”
Spitfire rolled her eyes. “You have a lot to learn in a limited time span. If we don’t make the most of every bit of daylight, you won’t be ready in time.” She glanced at the clock. “Speaking of which, we need to get going. Your handler should be arriving any moment now.”
“Handler. They’re the one who gives you your assignments, intelligence briefs, and equipment. Basically, they’re your supervisor. A good handler can make or break an operative.”
Rainbow mulled that over in her head. She didn’t like supervision. Part of the reason she took the weather job in Ponyville was the lack of direct oversight. As long as the crops were watered and the storms didn’t get too nasty, nopony bothered her. The most supervision she’d ever had was during Tornado Duty a couple years back. Coincidentally, it was Spitfire who had been the supervisor for that.
“Whatever. I just hope she doesn’t slow me down too much,” Rainbow replied, waving a hoof dismissively.
Spitfire wanted to tell Dash how wrong she was for thinking that her handler would be a liability. She thought back on all of the times her handler had gone above and beyond to make sure he had done everything possible simplify her mission. Proper gear, fresh intelligence, specialist team members, and so, so much more. Handlers were guardian angels sent from heaven to make life easier (and hopefully longer). However, she held her tongue. Better to let the rookie discover it for herself.
The pair exited the room. Though the barracks had been carved out of the same bedrock as the rest of the Hub, the stone tunnels of the operatives’ quarters had been fitted with carpet and drywall to give the occupants a more comfortable living space. The idea of living underground had some novelty to it, but it wore off quickly. After working a long day surrounded by slate-grey walls and steel girders, the last thing anypony wanted was to come home to the exact same utilitarian construction.
They passed through a set of double doors and entered the cavernous atrium once more. It was still empty, but there was evidence of overnight activity. It was difficult to put her hoof on it, but something told Rainbow Dash that ponies had been working there while she was asleep.
A metallic grinding sound echoed through the chamber. In the near corner, the giant pillar of the elevator began to descend. Daylight streamed in momentarily, quickly being shut out as a cover slid into place over the opening.
“She’s here,” Spitfire observed. “C’mon. Let’s go meet her.”
Both pegasi approached the elevator shaft. It slowly retracted further into the ground, bringing the grassy platform closer to the ground. As much as Rainbow Dash disliked the idea of somepony watching over her, she was curious as to whom it would be. An old, grizzled RAID veteran? A former Wonderbolt, perhaps? That would be pretty awesome.
All thoughts of retired heroes and ex-stuntponies vanished as the elevator reached the floor. The color drained from her face as her eyes met the elevator’s sole occupant. She tried to say something, but she her found herself unable to make even the slightest noise – stunned into silence by the griffon before her.
“Long time, no see, dude.”
Spitfire raised an eyebrow at the newcomer. “You two know each-“
The griffon smiled humorlessly. “I was wondering how long it’d take you to get here. Looks like you aren’t as fast as you tell everyone.”
Rainbow could only gape at her old friend. She hadn’t seen her Junior Speedsters roommate since the party in Ponyville. Judging by her icy reception, Dash knew the griffon hadn’t forgotten that incident.
The two former friends stared at each other – one in shock, the other relishing the moment. A tense silence permeated the air. Spitfire shifted her weight nervously. The first day of training had hardly begun and they were already running into snags.
“So, I, uh…” Spitfire began nervously, “I take it you two have met before.”
“Sure have,” Gilda replied, not breaking eye contact with the stunned Rainbow Dash. “Me and Dash go way back.”
“Y-yeah, of course! Way back,” continued Rainbow. “Best of friends, that’s us! Heh heh…”
Spitfire nervously fluttered her wings, unconvinced. She stopped herself from pursuing the matter further, though. Better to ask them individually in case her suspicions of bad blood between the two proved correct. Bringing it up now could end in a brawl.
“Well, uh… if you already know each other so well, then I guess an introduction would be a waste of time, huh?” She smiled, trying to lighten the mood. “Let’s get started with the facility tour.”
Gilda’s eyes narrowed ever so slightly before she snapped out of her gaze. “Sounds good,” she stated with too much enthusiasm. “Should we start with the armory? There’s tons of cool stuff for absolutely tearing things apart in there.”
The little color that had remained in Dash’s face vanished at the suggestion. Spitfire noted the change with some dismay. The “old friends” clearly had some unfinished business between them.
“I thought we’d start by introducing Dash to some of her classroom instructors first,” the Wonderbolt suggested. “She’s gonna be spending a lot of time with them, after all.”
Gilda rolled her eyes in exasperation. “Aw, not those dweebs! They’re so lame! Talk about being RAID in name only…”
Rainbow, on the other hoof, was inwardly relieved at Spitfire’s idea. Gilda’s already got razor talons and a wicked beak. I’d rather not be around her in a room full of weapons.
“Those ‘dweebs’ need to know who they’re gonna be working with,” Spitfire countered. “We’ll get to the armory eventually.”
The trio slowly started making their way towards the tunnels in the wall. Gilda shot Rainbow a dirty glance before falling in line behind Spitfire.
May 16th, 1004 New Solar Calendar
“You okay, rookie?”
Spitfire’s question snapped Rainbow Dash out of the trance she had been in since dinner. She bolted up in bed and looked around her room, unaware that the Wonderbolt had entered.
The worried wrinkles on Spitfire’s brow deepened. She sat down next to Dash on the bed. “You looked like you saw a ghost when Gilda showed up. You were a mess all day. More than one instructor said they thought I pulled strings to get you through the evaluation. They couldn’t believe such a frightened, sickly mare could pass it.” Her tone took on the slightest edge. “When other ponies start questioning my professionalism, I get angry very quickly.”
She paused, taking a deep breath before continuing. “I can tell there’s something between you and Gilda, and it isn’t pretty. I want to give you a chance to tell me what it is before I ask her.”
Her eyes shifted back and forth, making sure their conversation was still private despite their isolation in Rainbow’s room. Her voice dropped to a murmur. “I’ve been working with her for a while now, and she doesn’t seem like the type to tell it as it is when she’s angry, y’know?”
Dash gave a small nod in agreement. During their days at Junior Speedsters, the pegasus had been the levelheaded one of the pair. Saying Gilda had a short fuse wasn’t quite accurate – she didn’t have one at all. The griffon blew her top at every perceived insult, which led to more misunderstandings than Dash cared to remember. She’d bailed her hotheaded friend out of more than one sticky situation.
“Yeah, that’s Gilda, all right,” she replied, a hint of regret in her words.
Spitfire gently pressed the issue. “So? What happened?”
Dash bit her lip, dredging up unpleasant memories. “We kinda… had a falling-out a few years ago. Haven’t spoken to her since.” She cast her eyes down in guilt. “I’d actually pretty much forgotten about her ‘til now.”
The two pegasi sat in silence. Spitfire was torn between pressing Rainbow for a definite answer and letting her recover from what was undoubtedly an emotionally draining day. She needed to know if her star rookie could handle the situation, but her usual method of head-on confrontation would only make matters worse. The silence continued.
Spitfire was unsure of how to proceed. She had been trained as a fighter and a flier, not a therapist. Normally, she’d either tell the young mare to suck it up or refer her to one of the unit’s counselors. From the looks of her now, Rainbow wouldn’t be helped by the first option. The second would take far too long.
“Tell you what,” Spitfire began. “You’ll begin your training schedule tomorrow as planned. If things get better between you and Gilda, great. If you find that you really can’t work with her, we’ll work something out. Deal?”
The young pegasus nodded after a moment of consideration, allowing a wave of relief to wash over her new mentor. Spitfire gently flapped her wings and rose from the bed, planting all four hooves on the floor. “Glad you’re on board with me.” She grinned wryly. “I suppose I should have seen something like this coming, what with how quickly she volunteered to be your handler.
Dash’s head snapped up, instantly losing its morose expression. She stared into space for a fleeting moment before turning to Spitfire.
“She asked for this?”
“Mhm. And it was a real load off my back when she did. I was afraid nopony would step up to the challenge.”
A brief moment passed before Dash realized what she had heard. She took to the air, hovering in the Wonderbolt’s face.
“Challenge?! Whaddaya mean, ‘challenge?’”
The grin on Spitfire’s face widened as she coyly looked away. “Well, you don’t exactly have a reputation of being easy to deal with.”
She glanced back at Rainbow in time to see her eye twitch. Her guilt and sadness had evaporated, pushed back by the competitive streak that defined her character.
“I’ll show them! Rainbow Dash can work with anypony! They’ll see!”
She began pacing around the room, angrily continuing her rant to nopony in particular. Satisfied with her work, Spitfire excused herself from the room, allowing Rainbow to continue her tirade.
She’s so easy to manipulate…
Three weeks later
06 JUN 04 MIL-STD CAL
Rainbow Dash awkwardly nocked another arrow to the longbow, praying the result would be less disastrous than her last several attempts. The rock wall behind the target was pockmarked with craters, yet the steel plate itself was unharmed.
Along the firing line, several other pegasi experimented with their own bows. Most had the same result as Dash. Every few seconds, the twang of a bowstring would be followed by a sharp crack as a magical arrow gouged a crater in the bedrock on the far end of the range. One pony, however, loosed arrows with practiced finesse. She had hit seven targets in a row before the instructors had whisked her off into the bowels of the facility.
Rainbow pulled the bowstring back until the enchanted arrowhead rested an inch from the yew of her bow. Her legs twinged with pain from the unusual exertion. She gritted her teeth, concentrating on arcing her shot onto the plate.
She loosed the arrow. Her heart leaped as it sailed across the expanse of the range, directly in line with the target. The excitement vanished as quickly as it appeared when the arrow sank below the bull’s eye, colliding with the plate’s supporting legs. The blast tore them apart, sending the metal sheet clanging to the rock floor. She winced at the noise. Glancing around, she could see everypony else staring at her.
The instructor removed his protective earplugs, slowly making his way over to Rainbow. He let out a frustrated sigh. “Well, it’s been five hours now. I guess we can cross ‘longbow’ off the list for you, recruit.”
Dash’s ears drooped. She had been trying to find a weapon she could use effectively for the last week. Longbow, broadsword, short sword, mace, axe, wing blades… dozens of weapons had been tried, and she had not shown any promise with any of them. Spitfire had assured her that she would find something, but the list was growing dangerously short. She had been deeply disappointed when it was discovered that she could not wield a claymore. She had caught a glimpse of herself holding it in a mirror and instantly declared it to be The Most Awesome Weapon Ever. Everything else instantly became inferior.
The next weapon on the list hardly piqued her interest. A common spear, hardly different from the kind used by the Royal Guard every day. It had some kind of sharpness enchantment on it to keep its edge. Other than that, though, it was unremarkable in every way. Rainbow Dash did not have high hopes for it.
She was ushered from the range without ceremony. Two instructors, a stallion and a mare, led her down a long corridor to a well-padded room populated by target dummies aligned along the room’s center. All but one were tattered and torn, the unfortunate victims of previous RAID trainees. They reminded Rainbow of Rarity’s mannequins. The only major difference was the red paint marking the location of major organs and blood vessels.
The two instructors accompanying her opened a locker along the wall, producing a spear and a curved metal plate with thick burlap straps. They attached the plate to one of the instructors’ hind legs just below the flank. He gripped the spear in his fetlock and flew in front of Rainbow Dash.
“Alright, rookie,” he began, “this here’s your standard Guard spear. Length of two meters, weight of five kilos. Balanced for stabbing, not throwing, so don’t get any bright ideas. It ain’t a javelin.”
He nodded at the plate attached to his hind leg. “This is a new addition. Part of an experiment to increase the effectiveness of spears. See that dimple?”
He tapped the plate’s center with his spear. There was an impression that cupped the weapon’s counterweight perfectly. “That lets you put more power into your thrusts. Instead of using your foreleg for both aiming and force, you just kick your hind leg forward and let your foreleg do the aiming.”
To demonstrate, he took to the air once more, approaching one of the damaged targets. With a single deft movement, he kicked his knee forward, thrusting the spear a half-meter into the target’s chest.
Dash’s eyes widened, suddenly much more interested in the weapon.
“Seems to work pretty good, given that you have the proper technique,” the instructor commented. “We’ll get you fitted for a legplate and give you a go at Tommy Target over there.”
He retrieved several legplates from the locker. After ten minutes of fitting, tightening, and fine adjusting, Rainbow’s plate had been secured. It felt odd, as the cold metal curved around the front of her leg a bit too much for her comfort, but she pushed the sensation out of her mind. She had just seen a spear go clean through that target dummy, and she wanted a chance to try it out for herself.
“Remember,” the instructor lectured, “don’t use your foreleg for anything but guidance. Let your hind leg do the hard work. Stabilize yourself with your wings and strike.”
Dash approached the fresh target, spear in hoof. She aimed for the same spot as the instructor and kicked her knee forward. The power in her thrust surprised her. The spear’s shaft slipped in her fetlock, completely missing her imaginary bull’s eye. She nervously glanced at her instructors, fearing that she had proven herself incapable with yet another weapon.
To her confusion, they both wore impressed expressions. She looked back at her spear to find it sticking out of the back of the target’s neck, having passed clean through.
She drew the spear from the burlap body. It left a gaping hole on both sides, slicing directly through one of the red-painted blood vessels. Dash was no expert on traumatic injury, but she was fairly certain that anypony unlucky enough to receive such a grievous wound would not live to tell the story.
The instructors trotted over, examining the wound. “Holy Celestia, recruit,” the mare muttered. “You must have some kind of bloodlust.”
Her partner peered through the channel created by the spear’s shaft. “Yeah, nopony’s walkin’ away from this one. That was pretty brutal.”
“I think we’ve found her weapon.”
“Seems that way.”
It was the first good news Dash had heard in weeks. She smiled to herself and nodded. This thing is awesome.
June 9th, 1004 New Solar Calendar
Rainbow Dash hovered away from the mess hall’s packed lunch line, tray in hoof. She had been enjoying her day off immensely. Her spear training had been going well, but she had not been above ground in weeks, and she could feel cabin fever starting to set in. The fresh air of the open sky had never felt so crisp and clean before. She had missed the feeling of the cool breeze in her mane more than anything. She flew in a straight line for hours simply because she could.
At some point during her new-found liberty, she realized that she had been away from Ponyville for more than six weeks without contacting any of her friends. They were probably worried sick about her. She had told them that the evaluation would take three weeks and that she would get in touch with them as soon as possible afterwards. One or two days extra would not fluster them, but Dash could easily envision Twilight panicking after the first week. With any luck, she would have written to Celestia about it. The Princess would know all about Rainbow’s situation and find some way to calm her pupil without revealing the true nature of Dash’s absence.
Still, she told herself, I should probably write them a letter or something. Let them know that I’m not ditching them for a bunch of new friends or something. She owed them that much. A simple letter would do the trick. She would only need to write one. As long as it was addressed to Twilight, she could rest assured that all of her friends would eventually see it. Applejack or Rarity might forget to tell the others if they were particularly busy on the day it arrived, Fluttershy was too timid to be reliable, and Pinkie… well, there was no telling what would happen to the letter should Pinkie Pie get her hooves on it. Best to go with Ponyville’s resident neat-freak.
Resolved to write a letter before bed, Dash had headed back to the Hub in time for noon chow. The enchanted rock face now accepted her as Rainbow Dash – Trainee before starting the elevator’s descent. She had learned her way around the rocky halls over the past three weeks, finding her way to the mess hall just before the midday rush.
She looked around for an open seat. She found several from which to choose, but a table near the middle of the hall caught her eye. It had a sole occupant – a female griffon with a perpetually condescending expression.
Dash swallowed. Her interactions with Gilda thus far had consisted of being ignored or patronized. As much as she wanted to ignore the elephant in the room, she knew that they would eventually need to have an earnest conversation about past events. Now seemed as good a time as any. There were tons of other ponies around, which would at least give Gilda pause for thought before making a scene. The public setting would also allow the griffon to leave if she was not ready to talk yet.
Rainbow allowed her impulsive side to take over, deciding that it was time to fix things. She floated to Gilda’s table, setting her tray across from her former friend, who looked up from her food with an annoyed expression. When Dash didn’t leave after a few moments, Gilda finally broke the silence.
“Trying to sit at the cool table again, Dash? You’re a bit outta practice for that.” She nodded to a table of unicorns in lab coats. “Why don’t you go sit with those dorks? You’ll probably fit in better.”
Dash ignored the half-hearted barb. “Gilda, why did you volunteer to be my handler? I can see that you still blame me for what happened in Ponyville. So what gives? Why would you put us back together on purpose?”
Gilda popped a cherry tomato into her beak, swallowing it whole. “Isn’t it obvious? I wanted a front-row seat to watch you make a fool of yourself in front of the Wonderbolts. Figured it might be good for a laugh or two.”
A frown spread across Rainbow’s face. “Come on, Gilda, I know that’s not it. You don’t actually want to see me screw up. If that was the case, you’d have already sabotaged me.” Her eyes narrowed. “So what was the real reason?”
“I just said it.”
“I don’t buy it.”
“Then I guess you aren’t as smart as you think you are.”
Dash growled at her. “Why are you being such a hatchling about this?”
“A hatchling? Funny talk from the pony who hangs out with lame-os like your friend Pinkie Pie!”
“Don’t talk about Pinkie like that!”
Gilda feigned an apology. “Oh, I’m sorry! Did I hurt your feelings? Do you not like it when I talk about your little pony friends like that?”
“No, I don’t!” Dash replied angrily. “You were awful to all my friends during your visit. I can’t remember one time you treated them decently!”
“Well, duh! They were a bunch of losers. Losers who turned you into the biggest loser of them all!”
The pair glared at each other. Despite the heated argument, Dash was confident that Gilda had another angle. She just needed to figure out a way to get the jealous griffon to spill the beans.
Realization swept over Rainbow as she put all the pieces together. Gilda’s behavior had never made sense to her. The griffon had always been brash and abrasive, but she always stopped well short of cruelty. When she had snapped at Pinkie Pie, and later Fluttershy, Dash was at a loss for an explanation.
All of Gilda’s odd behavior suddenly made sense. Dash had tried to introduce her to five of her new friends at once. It was only natural that Gilda would start to get protective. She saw those ponies as a threat to her friendship with Dash.
“You were jealous of them.”
For a split-second, Gilda froze. She regained her composure too late to keep Rainbow Dash from noticing the slip. “Jealous? Of those dweebs?” She snorted in derision. “They must’ve done a real number on you if that’s what you think.”
Dash once again ignored the insult, pressing ahead. “I invited you over hoping that you’d be able to hang out with my Ponyville friends, but I never thought about how it looked to you. It must have seemed like I was rubbing my new friends in your face.”
Gilda’s bitter expression softened. “Um… well… a bit, yeah.”
“I… I’m so sorry, Gilda,” muttered Rainbow. She hung her head, closing her eyes. “I never meant to make you feel replaced. I just wanted to be able to hang out with everypony at once.” She looked up at Gilda again, who no longer appeared upset. “I should have made time for just us instead of throwing everypony into the mix so soon.”
“Well, if that’s the case… then I guess I’m sorry, too,” Gilda replied quietly. Dash wasn’t used to hearing her friend speak so quietly. “I hated seeing those ponies be so friendly with you. I don’t even know why – I just did. I guess that’s why I got so angry.”
Rainbow nodded. “You can be loud and obnoxious sometimes, but I know you aren’t a jerk. I’ve spent the last few years wondering what happened to you since Junior Speedsters.”
“Same here,” Gilda admitted. “I wondered when you had changed so much that you would want to ruffle my feathers just for fun.
The pair sat in silence for a moment before Dash extended a hoof across the table.
“So… friends again?”
Gilda chuckled, accepting the hoof in her claw. “Yeah, friends.”
The tension that had been building for the last three weeks began ebbing away, replaced with the awkward but warm sensation of reconciliation. It would still take time for things to return to any semblance of normal, but the first, most difficult step had been taken. Time would take care of the rest.
Gilda stopped eating for a moment. “By the way, since when am I the ‘loud and obnoxious’ one?”
“Uh, since always,” Dash replied through a mouthful of hay fries.
“Oh yeah?” Gilda retorted, a smile curling on her beak. “Who here jumped up on a lunch cloud back at camp and shouted out everyone’s secret crushes?”
“That was one time!”
Eleven months later
01 MAY 05 MIL-STD CAL
Rainbow Dash stood in formation among the rest of her graduating class. On a podium in front of the inductees, an instructor read off their names and assignments. The loudspeakers sent the instructor’s voice echoing off of the stone walls of the Hub’s main atrium. To Dash’s surprise, there were several unicorns and earth ponies alongside her. She had never seen them before, despite having spent most of the last year in the Hub.
“Indigo Wind – Gamma Division, Strike Group Bravo, 1st Platoon, 3rd Squad.”
Over the last year, she had learned things she could never have imagined about flying. She had already considered herself one of the best fliers before leaving for the evaluation. The instructors had shown her up once her training began. She wasn’t as maneuverable at high speeds as she should have been, and her ability to carry weight over long distances was severely lacking. Most of all, though, her precision was almost nonexistent. Her style was brash and showy – not well suited for flying in formation.
“North Star – Beta Division, Logistics Support Group, 3rd Transport Company.”
RAID had changed all of that. The training had been a long, painful process, but she had been transformed from a flashy soloist into a disciplined aerial warrior. Her eyes had been opened to an entirely new world. Precision flying was an art and science that required uncommon dedication and drive. Rainbow Dash prided herself on both of those attributes.
“Amethyst – Beta Division, Communications Group, Long-Range Communication Section.”
Gilda had been incredibly helpful since their reconciliation. She had secured advanced spear instruction in Rainbow’s training cycle. Experts in leg-plate spear training were few and far between. Dash was still unsure as to how Gilda found the trainers in the first place. If such resourcefulness became the standard, the pair of them would become an unbeatable team.
“Golden Iris - Beta Division, Royal Guard Liason.”
As much as Rainbow Dash enjoyed her new surroundings, she missed her friends from back home. The suffocating professionalism required of her while working in the Hub had worn her down over the months. She often found herself wishing she could fly to Sugar Cube Corner to pull pranks with Pinkie Pie or visit Sweet Apple Acres to challenge Applejack to yet another competition. Her main line of communication with them was through her letters, which she sent weekly. She had been anticipating her post-graduation leave for weeks, during which she was to “do anything except talk about, hint about, or even think about RAID.” Plans were already in the works for a six-mare sleepover at the library.
“Thunderclap – Gamma Division, Strike Group Echo, 3rd Platoon, 4th Squad.”
She had learned about the secret inner workings of RAID. Gamma Division, the direct-action branch, had Rainbow’s name written all over it. Most of her trainers were in Gamma. They did all of the cool stuff – they gave RAID its name. With her new-found skills in spear fighting, she was all but certain she would be placed on a Gamma Squad.
“Bass Beat – Beta Division, Intelligence Support Group, 1st Platoon, 1st Squad.”
Beta Division was the support branch. It handled everything from procuring equipment and material to communication between deployed squads and Headquarters. They couldn’t claim any of the glory that Gamma could, but they kept the entire operation fed and working.
“Shadow Scryer – Theta Division, Equine Intelligence. Report to Theta HQ for further instruction.”
Theta Division… Rainbow didn’t know much about Theta. It handled RAID’s intelligence operations. Shrouded in secrecy and mystery, Theta enjoyed a great amount of independence. Dash had been told that she would almost certainly not be placed in Theta Division. Her abilities in the field were too valuable.
“Windblown – Beta Division, Logistics Support Group, Headquarters Staff.”
There were other minor divisions, like Omicron, in charge of security, and Lambda, the research & development arm. Dash had mostly ignored those. They each amounted to less than a hundred ponies each, and they rarely took in recruits.
“Saga Soul – Gamma Division, Quick Response Group, 2nd Platoon, 3rd Squad.”
The stallion to Dash’s left allowed himself a tiny smirk despite standing at attention. Rainbow’s heartbeat quickened. Her assignment was next.
“Rainbow Dash – Beta Division, Individual Augmentee.”
It took her a few seconds to process the announcement. She wanted to stand forward and protest, but Spitfire’s gaze from the stage stayed her hooves. A simple nod from the Wonderbolt told her to simply go with it. As much as Rainbow trusted her new mentor, though, she could not help but to be very confused. Beta Division?
“Graduates, you have all endured a long training cycle,” the instructor continued. “Some of you were introduced to RAID six months ago. Others of you have been here for a year or more. It has required strict discipline to get this far, and it has paid off. RAID will be your chance to make a difference in the world. It is your chance to serve Equestria with your unique talents.
“Through our training, you have become the will of the Princesses. Your actions will determine the fate of their ponies all over Equestria. Your lives will influence the course of history. Few ponies have what it takes to serve with us.
“And now, it is my honor to bestow upon you the last two rites of initiation.”
Ten instructors stepped forward from the crowd behind the gathered graduates. They each held a small pin in their mouths. With great care, they attached the metal insignia to the recruits’ uniforms just below the collar. With coordinated precision, they all flew into the dark above, leaving the stage and graduates bathed in the spotlights’ glow.
“Your instructors have placed the RAID unit insignia over your hearts. Not only does it formalize your graduation from mere recruit to full operative, it symbolizes your transition from being their students to being their brothers and sisters in arms. Wear it with pride, as you have earned your place in the world’s most elite fighting force.”
The stallion paused for a moment, allowing RAID’s newest operatives to appreciate what they had just achieved. A small but sly grin crept onto his face as he began his address anew.
“There is one last step you must take before becoming full unit members. I leave it to your former instructors to carry this out.”
A bittersweet scent wafted into Dash’s nostrils. It was familiar, but not one she had encountered often. She tried to recall a memory of the smell. It was… the west field of Sweet Apple Acres, near the fence. The fields on the adjacent property carried a similar scent. She remembered asking what crops had been planted there. Applejack’s response had been… oh, what was it? Wheat? No, no wheat. Rye? No, not that either. Barley?
That was it! Barley! Barley and… hops?
Barley and hops.
She looked up to see the instructor that had just pinned the RAID insignia on her uniform hovering above her, grinning madly and holding an enormous barrel. The stallion at the podium shouted the ceremony’s closing command.
May 1st, 1005 New Solar Calendar
Rainbow Dash floated around the party, reveling in her delightful buzz. She had never been a big drinker back in Ponyville, but she was known to enjoy the occasional fruity drink or hard cider at the local taverns. She could never hope to keep up with Applejack, though. That was one area in which the farmer had Rainbow beat hooves down. After their first misadventure with firewater, Dash had been all but convinced that the Apple family raised their children on the strongest of whiskies.
Luckily for her, she had at least some tolerance to intoxicating beverages. It had come in handy when she was on her back with a funnel in her mouth, chugging the entirety of three low-quality brews to a thundering chant of encouragement. After standing up to a chorus of cheers from the crowd, she found that she had developed a grudging respect for the eggheads at the Royal University. She had heard stories of their parties before, but she had never believed the wild tales of uninhibited insanity.
If she had been less disciplined (and more sober), the star-studded crowd would have made her squeal in fangirlish delight. The entire active roster of the Wonderbolts was in attendance, along with some of the old legends about which she had read. She could see Fleet Foot and Rapid Fire trying to fly straight lines towards the open bar, where Soarin’ and Spitfire were already engrossed in conversation. She couldn’t quite tell from her inebriated state, but she could swear they were exchanging less-than-innocent glances.
She giggled to herself. It didn’t matter if it was the truth, the drinks, or her overactive imagination. She was really, truly enjoying herself for the first time in months. A few of her classmates from the past year had found her and began swapping memories of their most embarrassing moments during training. It wasn’t quite like hanging out with her friends from Ponyville, but it was a decent substitute for the time being.
Dash hastily began recounting a day of weighted aerobatics, drunkenly pantomiming her feats. She tried to mimic a barrel roll, but ended up flipping on her back and crashing to the ground, eliciting roaring laughter from her classmates. In any other circumstances, she would have immediately objected, but she instead laughed along with them.
The voice of her mentor broke through the guffawing. “Lookin’ good, Dash. I’m so glad we recruited you for this top-secret…” Spitfire searched for the proper term, tapping her chin with her hoof. “Thing. That’s it.”
“I think you mean RAID, Shpitfire,” Dash slurred in response, still flat on her back. “You should probably know the name of your own aweshome shuper-shpy group.”
Spitfire silenced the intoxicated pony with a hoof. “Don’t you go correcting me, Little Miss Sonic Rainboom. You’re so drunk, you can’t even do a barrel roll right.”
Her hoof was batted away as Rainbow prepared her defense. “Hey, it’sh been a long time shinsh I had a good party.” She rolled over, shakily rising to her hooves. “And it’sh your fault I’m like thish, anyway!” She pointed an accusing hoof at the Wonderbolt captain. “Who wash it pouring that shtuff down my throat, huh?”
“Soarin’ and Fleet Foot,” she answered with a sheepish smile.
“…and perhaps I lent a hoof for a bit.”
“Shee? It’sh your fault, jusht like I shaid.” Dash began to tip over before her classmates caught her. “Thanksh, girlsh.”
“You’re such a lightweigh, Dash,” one of them chuckled.
She ignored the comment, instead scanning the crowd with increasingly blurry vision. “Where’sh Gilda? I haven’t sheen her yet, and she should prolly be here shomewhere.”
Spitfire looked around in a half-hearted effort. “I dunno. Didn’t you say you patched things up with her in one conversation?”
“Uh huh. B’cause I’m shuch an aweshome friend.” She giggled to herself, finding her statement much more humorous under the effects of the many consumed beverages.
“Doesn’t that seem a bit, y’know, quick?” the Wonderbolt captain asked. “It looked like she really hated your guts, but it only took one five-minute conversation and suddenly she’s your friend again?”
Dash waved a dismissive hoof at her mentor. “You obvioushly don’t know me very well. Nopony can’t be friendsh wif me. All I have to do is be ash radical ash poshible. Ashk Gilda!” She looked around the crowd. “Where ish she, anyway?”
Spitfire rolled her eyes. It was not even ten in the evening and her rainbow-maned prodigy was already beginning to fade. “Okay, Dash, I think it’s time for you to go to bed. You’ve had plenty of fun already, and if we don’t get some water in you, tomorrow morning, you’ll have the worst headache since the evaluation.”
“I’m fine. Really. It’sh too early for bed.”
Undeterred, Spitfire continued leading her from the crowd. “Not for you, it isn’t. I need you to be able to get out of bed before three in the afternoon tomorrow. I still have to explain what your new assignment with Beta Division is.”
The graduation ceremony was a blurry memory for Dash, who had other things on her mind.
“Hey, Shpitfire,” she began, a drunken grin growing on her face. “Did I shee you hitting on Shoarin’ at the bar earlier?”
“No. You did not,” she answered quickly.
“Yeah I did. You and Shoarin’! Oooooh!”
Spitfire groaned to herself. Drunks could be far too observant for their own good.
“Nah. I don’t swing that way, anyway.” A little white lie couldn’t hurt. Besides, the drunken graduate wouldn’t remember it the next day, anyway.
“You what? You’re a… a…?” Dash hopelessly grasped for the proper term.
The inebriated pegasus tried to form a coherent sentence. All she could manage was a few squeaks before her eyes rolled back and her legs gave out beneath her.
Spitfire picked up the unconscious Rainbow Dash and floated her to the barracks, chuckling at the hangover waiting for the young mare in the morning.
NEXT CHAPTER: “First Call”
May 2nd, 1005 New Solar Calendar
For a fleeting moment, Rainbow Dash was convinced that she was back in Cloudsdale suffering her way through the evaluation. Incoherent noise blasted through her ears, seeming to radiate from everywhere. Her head was in an ever-tightening vise grip that threatened to split her skull as she helplessly searched for the source of her waking migraine.
Her mind slowly reoriented itself. Through the stabbing pain in her ears, she reminded herself that the evaluation had happened a year ago. The more pressing issue was the warbling screech that filled the room, carrying a stabbing pain that pierced through her mind like a driven nail. Vaguely remembering the location of her alarm clock, she desperately flailed her hoof in its general direction. After several painful seconds of searching, she found the source of her pain. A solid whack silenced it.
The room was quiet once more. She closed her eyes, savoring the silence for a moment before flopping back onto her mattress. The previous night’s celebration was exacting its revenge on the poor pegasus in as many ways as possible. She was not acclimated to such levels of consumption, especially not in such a short amount of time. Her head was still throbbing in a dull pain that invaded her every thought. In her waking stupor, she cursed Spitfire, cursed the Wonderbolts, cursed her classmates, cursed the drinking games, and anything else she could vaguely connect to her pathetic state.
A knock at her door interrupted her silent rant. A familiar voice, rough but feminine, floated through the door.
“Dash? Are you up yet?”
Well, isn’t this the worst case of déjà vu ever, Rainbow thought. Spitfire knocking at my door while I wake up in pain.
Her lack of response prompted Spitfire to try again, this time with more force.
“Dash, I know you’re up. I heard your alarm go off.”
The brand-new operative pulled the covers over her head in the futile hope that the Wonderbolt would simply leave her be. To her dismay, Spitfire entered the room anyway. She trotted to Rainbow’s bed, flinging the covers off of the suffering mare.
“Come on, get up. You need to get some food and water before you keel over.”
“Just… just let me die here,” Dash groaned, blocking the light wit her hooves. “I don’t think I can go on.”
Spitfire chuckled at her protege’s pitiful state. “You made it through the evaluation and a year of training – you can handle a little hangover.”
“Nngh – a little hangover?” Dash asked, her voice cracking. “You call this a little hangover? I feel like I got hit by the Friendship Express!”
“Oh, don’t be so dramatic,” the yellow mare replied. “When you decide to stop feeling sorry for yourself, there’s breakfast in the chow hall. I recommend getting something inside you before you get really dehydrated. A good meal will do wonders for your condition.”
Dash mumbled something incoherent as she rolled to her side. Spitfire sighed in resignation and turned towards the door. If she had discovered one thing over the past year, it was that Rainbow Dash could not learn the easy way. If she did not earn her experience through pain and frustration, she did not learn anything at all. The pony was stubborn as a mule (no offense).
Spitfire exited the room and briskly trotted to the chow hall. Time for some warm whole-milk oatmeal with cinnamon and sugar. With any luck, her protege would soon follow. Then again, Celestia might decide to raise the sun in the west tomorrow. She shrugged to herself, pushing through the living quarters’ double door entrance. No sense in worrying about it. There was food to be had... far more important. She picked up her pace, eagerly awaiting the meal ahead.
May 2nd, 1005 New Solar Calendar
“An Individual Augmentee,” Spitfire began, mock gravitas in her tone. “It’s rare to see one come through. Last one I remember was, oh, three years ago?” She shrugged indifferently. “Something like that. They aren’t common.”
The two pegasi walked down a concrete lined tunnel as they descended further and further into the bowels of the Hub. It was large enough to fit three trains side-by-side and equally as tall. Lights were recessed into the ceiling, casting yellow pools of illumination below. Blue stenciled numbers painted on the floor and walls assisted in the navigation of Beta Division’s sprawling headquarters.
The hoofsteps of the two mares echoed off of distant grey-brown walls before being swallowed up by the enormity of the passage. Though quiet, the noise was still enough to sting Rainbow’s ears. The effects of the previous night were still taking their toll on the young flier, despite her twelve-hour rest. Sparing her cottony mouth the effort, she silently cursed the graduation day traditions. I bet this is their idea of a great joke, she bitterly concluded.
“Huh. And, uh… what exactly is an Individual Augmentee?” Dash asked, rubbing her temple with a hoof.
“I’d explain it,” Spitfire replied, stopping on a flat landing in front of a large garage door, “but I’ll leave it to your handler.”
Rainbow glanced above the door while Spitfire tapped a code into a nearby keypad embedded in the concrete wall. The label ‘B-W-05-037 IA’ had been painted in large blue letters. She was vaguely familiar with the numbering scheme used in the Hub. Beta Division, West Wing, Level Five, Section Three-Seven. Given Spitfire’s talk about Individual Augmentees, Dash felt comfortable assuming that was what the last two letters represented.
Spitfire’s keypad beeped agreeably as she entered the proper sequence. A warning klaxon blared to life, accompanied by a pair of strobing orange lights. Beyond the door, a motor whirred to life, retracting the hinged metal slats into the ceiling. Beyond the entrance, there was only an eerie, uninviting darkness, starkly contrasting with the industrial-strength vapor lamps lighting the rest of Beta Division’s headquarters. As much as Rainbow disliked the murky orange light of the tunnels, pitch blackness was not an improvement she had been seeking.
Dash leaned forward hesitantly, squinting to make out any detail. The room seemed to swallow light whole, allowing no reflections or shadows. A slight nudge from her mentor prompted her to take a few reserved steps into the darkness. Her apprehension doubled when the door automatically shut behind them, plunging their surroundings into complete blackness. In the dark antechamber, there was no light and no sound. Without warning, both pegasi were surrounded by a magical red aura. It lingered for a moment before disappearing as quickly as it came. An automated voice squawked into the room through unseen speakers.
“Identities confirmed. Spitfire – Active Wonderbolt. Rainbow Dash – Beta Division, Section Three-Seven. Access granted.”
A slit of light appeared along the floor, gradually widening as a second door was pulled up and into the concrete. A shadow interrupted the solid band of light, coalescing into coherent form as Dash’s eyes readjusted to the interior’s brightness. Standing before the entrance was a freshly preened griffon, smirking at the new operative. Her tail twitched as she examined Rainbow’s condition.
“Celestia help us all,” Gilda taunted, “Dash is a no-kidding RAID operative.”
“Ha, ha, G. Very funny.”
“And not just any operative, either.” She tapped the nearby wall, upon which was painted the same serial number Dash had seen above the door. “She’s in Section Three-Seven.”
Rainbow’s eyes narrowed. “And what’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means you’re probably gonna break a lot of expensive stuff,” she replied with a mischievous grin. Upon seeing the dirty look Spitfire shot her way, though, she clarified, “It means you’re an IA.”
“Yeah, that doesn’t help much, G.”
Gilda turned, motioning for the pair to follow her. “Individual Augmentee. You’ll be assigned to any team that needs your skills. Why they would need a slowpoke like you, though...”
She led Dash and Spitfire past the poured-concrete lobby and towards a black metal door studded with rivets. A keypad was set into the wall, similar to the one outside. Gilda tapped in a long string of digits before she was rewarded with the clanging of lock rods from within the door. It swung open on lubricated bearings, hardly making a noise as the three RAID operatives passed through the doorway into the small, dimly lit cell within. A red interior light switched to yellow as the door resealed itself, opening vents in the walls. Surprise jolted through Dash as white plumes loudly hissed from the vents. They closed as quickly as they opened, leaving the newest member of RAID startled and confused.
“Pressure room,” Spitfire explained. “Always kept above surrounding pressure. Keeps it sealed up so nothing gets in without us knowing.”
Rainbow scowled. “Would’ve been nice to know that beforehoof,” she muttered under her breath, smoothing her ruffled feathers.
The yellow interior light switched to green when the pressure equalized, unlocking the antechamber’s second armored door. All three operatives silently walked into the darkened room beyond.
Dash’s jaw fell, stunned at the sheer amount of technology before her. She had seen computers a few times before, but most ponies in Ponyville preferred more traditional methods for day-to-day communication, calculation, and bookkeeping. RAID, however, did not subscribe to that philosophy. Glowing pale blue monitors ringed the room’s exterior, each displaying a slowly rotating model of the RAID unit insignia. A single huge screen showing the same motif took up an entire wall.
The most impressive feature, though, was in the center of the room. A tabletop holographic display of Equestria rendered the entire country in minute detail. Clouds drifted and water flowed in real time. If she looked very closely at the small cluster of buildings just southwest of Canterlot, she could pick out a tiny speck of a cloud where her house should be. She didn’t know much about technology or magic, but she was certain that a bunch of wires and metal couldn’t create such a detailed image without some arcane assistance.
Gilda relished the silent awe on her friend’s face for a moment. “Impressive, isn’t it? I bet all of Ponyville doesn’t have this many computers.”
Dash made a small noise of acknowledgement, her attention still focused on the ghostly map of Equestria. Even Spitfire was impressed. She circled the humming projection, her practiced eyes scanning the detailed image.
“Is this the Three-Echo model?” the Wonderbolt captain asked, lightly running a hoof across the gently glowing control panel. “I used the Three-Delta back when I was with Gamma Division, but it wasn’t nearly so detailed.”
“Sure is,” the griffon replied. “Got all the bells and whistles. Underway ops, team locations, IA operative tracking... It’s all there, plus a little extra.”
She clawed a button on the display’s side. Needle-thin lines connected floating labels to locations on the map. Cubes and pyramids in many colors appeared in the air and on water, each with their own labels. Glowing hemispheres sprouted in a ring along the coasts and borders, each regularly sending out gentle pulses from their centers.
Gilda playfully elbowed the yellow mare. “Pretty impressive, huh? We can watch our teams, monitor zeppelin and boat traffic, and get input from the Border Watch stations, all in the same display. It’s pretty sweet.”
Spitfire slowly nodded, an approving smile growing wider on her face. “That’s awesome. I wish we’d had toys this cool when I was in Gamma.” She tore her gaze away for a moment. “How high does the security clearance go on this thing?”
The self-satisfied smirk Gilda had been sporting since their arrival vanished, replaced with a frustrated scowl. “Only Level Two,” she scoffed.
“Why ‘only’ Two?”
“Because we’re only IA, and that’s not important enough for Level One clearance,” the griffon replied in a mocking falsetto.
Spitfire shrugged. “There isn’t really much you could do with Level One clearance. That’s Theta Division territory, and they work best when they’re left alone. Getting in their way never ends well.”
“It would sure be nice to know if we’re gonna bump into one of their spooks before we go someplace,” Gilda retorted.
Rainbow Dash, oblivious to the conversation taking place on the other side of the display, absentmindedly asked, “Is this really Equestria?”
Both RAID veterans shot her an annoyed glance before Gilda shut down the tabletop. “Come on, Dash, let’s get you up to speed on your assignment.”
She produced a remote control and pointed it at the wall screen. It abruptly switched from the rotating insignia to a tree diagram that branched off into dozens of segments, every one originating from a central line leading to the unmistakable cutie mark of Celestia herself.
“This is the overall chain of command for RAID,” Gilda explained. She pushed another button, highlighting a specific branch from Beta Division. “The highlighted bit is your place in all this. If you’re wondering why it doesn’t split off very much, well, that’s why your assignment is so useful.
“You report directly to the Beta Division Commander, who reports to the CO of RAID itself, who only answers to the Princesses.” She glanced at the diagram, cocking her head at the solar cutie mark at the top. “This chart is a bit out of date – y’know, two Princesses now – but it’s right besides that.”
Another button press magnified the Beta Division segment of the diagram. The highlighted branch was labeled ‘37’ at its endpoint.
“As a member of Section Three-Seven, you’ll be attached to any unit that need your… ‘special talents,’” Gilda continued, barely containing her sarcasm. “Apparently, you can fly really fast. I’ve never seen it, but, hey, it wasn’t my decision to put you here.”
A stern glance from Spitfire restored some of the professionalism to Gilda’s tone. “So, yeah, you’re a faster flier than almost anypony here, so you’ll be sent with any squad that needs your speed. I’ve also heard that you’re a bit of an aerial combat prodigy, so that may have been part of the decision, too.”
Dash pondered the multitude of glowing fingers extending down the screen. “So even though I’m not in Gamma Division, I’ll still be going on missions and stuff?”
“You sure will,” Spitfire interjected. “And you could get called at any time. You might do three ops in two weeks; you might not gear up for three months. It all depends on what we need for a particular mission. You will augment any team you’re placed on, hence Individual Augmentee. Your job is so important that they never let a prospective IA through training without a veteran mentor.” She put a hoof to her chest. “That’s why, aside from show weeks, I’ve been here the whole way.”
Rainbow mulled her new job description in her head. Spitfire’s enigmatic assurance during the ceremony last night suddenly made sense. Even though she was not formally assigned to Gamma Division, she would still be working with them in the field. She would be the specialist on every mission. That would work for her. Even on a classified mission for an organization that did not exist, she would still be in the spotlight.
“Do I have to do any more training?” she asked, dreading the answer. “’Cause I’ve been training for over a year now. It’s really starting to get lame.”
Spitfire chuckled. “Well, then I have good news and bad news. Bad news first?”
“Uh, only always.”
“Alright. Yes, there is more training.” She could see a fresh wave of frustration rising in the young mare. Moving quickly to counter it, she continued, “The good news, though, is that it’s all on-the-job training.”
Dash cocked her head in confusion.
“You start tomorrow. A Gamma division team is working with their new recruit, so you’ll join them for a little training op in the morning.”
The news was delightfully welcome, but Dash had become wary of good news since she left Ponyville. “What are we doing? Boulder pushes? Buddy-carry flights? Some other lame drill?”
Spitfire smiled knowingly. “Oh, it’s much more than that. Challenging, realistic… and as awesome as they come.”
03 MAY 05 MIL-STD CAL
As usual, RAID began its day at zero-six-hundred sharp. The Gamma Division team Rainbow would be training with had met in the Hub’s large atrium, standing before a dizzying array of armor, weapons, communication gear, and all other manner of toys. The team’s veterans hardly responded to the setup, but Rainbow and another young rookie assigned to the squad had to employ all of their discipline to keep from pouncing on the tables to pick out all of the coolest gear.
The rookie stallion was one she recognized from several phases of her training. She had done close-quarters drills with him a few months ago. Then, two weeks later, he showed up in her sparring training. About a month later, he was in learning how to move in heavy armor with her. He had graduated in the same class. If Rainbow’s memory served her right, he was the one who had started the whole idea of the funnel during the party afterwards. Her memory, though, was hardly trustworthy when considering the events of those few hours.
She leaned over to speak as the team waited for the quartermaster to finish preparing the selection.
“I remember you. We graduated at the same time, didn’t we?” she whispered, still facing forward.
He subtly nodded his acknowledgement. “Some party, huh?” he whispered in return, also maintaining a forward stare.
Dash rolled her eyes. “Thanks for the funnel, by the way. That totally didn’t mess me up for the rest of the night.”
A wry smile cracked across the stallion’s face. “One of my better ideas.”
“Very funny,” she replied in hushed tones. “By the way, in case you don’t remember much from that party, I’m Rainbow Dash. Some say I’m the fastest pony in Equestria.” She allowed an abundance of arrogance to flow into her voice. “I say they’re onto something.”
Unfazed, the young stallion returned the introduction. “Saga Soul. They say what I lack in speed I make up for in power. Just ask the last pony who made me angry.”
Dash was readying what she was sure would be a witty comeback when the platoon commander swept in from above, flaring his wings to land gently on the stone floor. He stood in front of the assembled platoon, addressing them with the confidence and force of a seasoned veteran.
“Okay, boys and girls. We got ourselves a little training op today to help break in our newbie. The Lotus Bloom Scenario is nothing you regulars haven’t seen before, but it’ll be a nice kick in the flank for the new guy.” He stared directly at the team’s newest member. “You think you know RAID, rookie? You got no clue. But we’ll fix that.”
The platoon sergeant by his side leaned over and whispered something in the commander’s ear. His eyes widened after a moment.
“Is that so?” he asked, to which his right-hoof mare nodded confidently. He turned back to his platoon. “It looks like we’ve got the – heh – ‘honor’ of training a Beta today. And not just any Beta – a Section Three-Seven recruit. How about them apples, eh?”
A murmur swept through the platoon, which was quickly silenced by a sharp whistle from the platoon sergeant. Silence fell over the assembled ponies, but Dash could see them stealing furtive glances in her direction. Her skin crawled at the looks on the other ponies’ faces as they examined her out of the corner of their vision. She loved having ponies look at her… but not like that. Though their expressions were well hidden behind masks of discipline, the looks in their eyes were ones of… disgust? She suddenly felt very small in the cavernous atrium.
“Yes, fillies and gentlecolts, we’re training an IA. Let’s show her how we do things in Gamma before she gets all soft like the rest of Beta.” The commander’s declaration was met with whoops and cheers from his platoon. “Now grab your gear and suit up – we’ll be briefed en route. Move!”
03 MAY 05 MIL-STD CAL
Operation LOTUS BLOOM mission clock: T minus 00:21:45
Eighty kilometers inland from Equestrian coast
Rainbow Dash leveled out in sync with the rest of her formation nearly ten kilometers above the ground. The sun was still low on the eastern horizon, providing meager warmth to her face. Even though spring had arrived weeks ago, the wind still had a chilly bite, especially at high altitude. The form-fitting bodysuit she had donned beneath her armor served to insulate her from the worst of the icy gusts, but she could still feel the shearing winds freezing tiny droplets of ice to her feathers. Despite being uncomfortable and distracting, it would not become a problem for at least another hour. If she remembered correctly, they would be well over the ocean by then. It would still be very cold flying, but the ice crystals would fall victim to warmer updrafts from the water.
She was flying the number eight position in a formation used to flying seven across. Her presence upset second squad’s precise V, extending one side into a disproportionate stretch. She kept precise station with the number six flier, keeping the sleekly armored stallion just in front and to her right, but she couldn’t suppress the tension in her chest when she saw nopony trailing the formation’s number seven on the other side of the flying wedge. A brief burst of static from the crystal matrix that formed her communication array brought her mind back to the mission. An authoritative male voice buzzed from the tiny speakers in her ears.
“Operation LOTUS BLOOM will commence at zero-six-forty-five. Callsign for Second Platoon, Quick Response Group is Copper. Callsign for Strike Group Delta 1 is Padlock. Individual callsigns are squad number followed by flight position. Commander callsigns are Actual. Platoon commanders, acknowledge.”
There was another short burp of static before the voice returned to Rainbow’s earbuds. “Teams will now receive their individual briefings.”
The earbuds clicked and buzzed as the input feed changed. A different voice, smooth and feminine, floated through the enchanted crystals and into Dash’s ears.
“Copper Team will be playing the role of a response team that has encountered an intruding hostile force. Your objective is to neutralize the threat before it can reach the coast, a distance of forty kilometers from the engagement’s starting point. You have received authorization to use deadly force upon contact. If the enemy reaches the coast or successfully disengages to retreat, the mission has failed.
“Your company commander has expressed interest in capturing one of the hostiles for interrogation. This is to be considered a secondary objective. Completion of this objective is not justification for failing a primary objective. However, the team that is able to complete their secondary objective earns three days of leave.
“Kill box for this exercise is below six thousand meters altitude and outside twenty kilometers north or south of engagement start point. Any operative crossing these boundaries is considered a casualty. Hard deck is below five thousand meters altitude and outside twenty-one kilometers north or south of engagement start point. Operatives are not to exit this area for any reason.”
“The Lotus Bloom scenario is not a graded event and does not influence the Honor Platoon competition. It is designed to familiarize new RAID operatives with aerial combat. Scenario will begin in eighteen minutes.”
Rainbow banked to her left as the formation altered course to the north. Having such a large area to fly in excited Rainbow Dash. She could go flat-out for a long time with that much space, something she had not been able to do for several weeks. What excited her even more, though, was the chance to compete against her so-called ‘equals’ in a fair fight. The thrill of competition had been absent from her life since the evaluation so long ago. She craved the adrenaline rush that came with every victory. Her heart beat rapidly, awaking an old giddiness that she sorely missed. Time to show off her skills!
“Copper Actual to Copper Team. Sound off for mission go.”
“Copper One-One, standing by.”
“Copper One-Two, standing by.”
The first squad checked in one by one, followed by second squad. After all the regularly assigned team members gave their ready reports, Dash clicked the talk button integrated into her chest armor. “Copper Two-Eight, standing by.”
“All Copper operatives standing by. We are go for Operation LOTUS BLOOM.”
A thin gold band below separated the rolling hills of green to the west from the flat expanse of deep blue to the east. Dash could feel the uneven updrafts from land meld into the uniform convection currents over the ocean. She relaxed her posture, no longer worried about sudden turbulence.
The formation flew east towards their start point, zigzagging to burn time before the training operation began. Dash hugged her faux spear to her torso, anticipating the command to begin. She activated the projectors on her clear visor, checking the integrated display for the time. Glowing characters in the upper left corner read T- 00:01:49.
Copper Team covered several kilometers as the mission clock ticked closer to zero. With ten seconds remaining, the no-nonsense male voice from the pre-briefing returned.
“T minus ten seconds.”
Nine. Eight. Seven. The green numbers on Dash’s display ticked lower. Six. Five. Four. The platoon commander radioed his operatives.
“Contact – five klicks. Track bogeys.”
Three. Two. One.
“Begin Operation LOTUS BLOOM.”
The two squads split up, breaking to the north and south. In the distance, Dash could see two specks just above the horizon, almost obscured by the sun. The specks gradually became lines, which differentiated into individual figures.
“Bandits confirmed at two klicks. It’s Padlock Team. Break and engage pony-to-pony. Pick targets and stay with them.”
Dash rolled to her left, diving to pick up speed. With any luck, Padlock would concentrate on the formation she had just left, allowing her to fly underneath them and come up from behind, attacking them before they could react.
She streamlined her body, accelerating into the sunrise. Her wings beat powerfully in the air, straining against the weight of her body and matte black armor. The airspeed indicator on her display passed five hundred kilometers per hour. Though her weapon and armor were constructed of some of the lightest materials known to ponykind, they still slowed the high-performance flier.
The opposing formation approached her from above. Hoping her black armor would camouflage her with the still-dark ocean below, Dash tucked her wings and rode her momentum forward, arcing through the sky. Her altimeter dropped precipitously. Nine thousand meters… eight… seven…
As soon as she thought the formation had passed, she opened her wings, stopping her descent. She pumped them furiously to regain stability and pulled up, soaring high into the cloudless sky. The loop continued until its apogee, where she did a half-roll to level out above and behind her target.
She eyed the wedge of pegasi hungrily, eager to show up all of the veterans who had been making the past year so difficult. Letting her training take over, she set the spear’s counterweight in her legplate’s dimple, ready to strike. The spearhead had been replaced with a padded block secured to a collapsing shaft, so it would not do any lasting damage, but Rainbow was determined to make her former instructors feel the impact. She gripped the lightweight training weapon tightly, beginning her attack run towards the six unaware ponies before her.
Before Rainbow could fully process her revelation, something whistled past her ear, arcing into the dark blue expanse below before disappearing from sight entirely. She turned to look over her shoulder. Nearly a hundred meters behind her, an archer was readying a follow-up shot. Ponyfeathers, she thought, he must have dropped out of their formation right behind me!
His first had been a near miss – the second would find its mark. As much as she wanted to get the jump on an entire squad on her first training mission, she had to deal with the stallion shooting at her from behind. She had few options, but a course of action was already forming in her adrenaline-enhanced mind.
Growling in frustration, Dash angled her wings and banked hard to the right. The archer’s second arrow passed harmlessly behind her. He tucked his bow away, giving chase to his quarry. Dash knew she could outrun him in a dead sprint, so she added dips, dives, and turns to her erratic route. She needed him to stay close, but she couldn’t make herself an easy target. A quick glance over her shoulder confirmed that the stallion was mirroring her every move. Phase One of her hastily concocted plan was working. Dash was banking on her pursuer not noticing the gradual increase in altitude she had worked into her evasive maneuvers.
A chill forced its way through the machined seams of her matte black bodysuit as the cat-and-mouse pair climbed even higher. If there had been any clouds in the sky, she would have used them to sucker him into a close-quarters fight with reduced visibility. As it was, though, the lack of clouds disguised the fact that the two pegasi had ascended to almost thirteen thousand meters.
Dash leveled out, breaking into a sprint. She glanced back to judge the stallion’s speed, matching it to minimize the distance she gained. The pair of them accelerated through four, five, six hundred kilometers per hour before the archer could go no faster. He drew his bow, hoping that the close range of his shot would not fall victim to the near-supersonic air rushing by.
He never got a chance to fire, as Dash angled herself skyward, climbing directly towards the early dawn sky. She was taking a big gamble, but she couldn’t see any other way to get the dogged pursuer off of her tail. He was just as determined to knock somepony out of the sky as Rainbow. Her best chance at salvaging her situation was to use that against him.
The altimeter on her display soared through seventeen thousand meters. She could feel her wings getting less purchase as she ascended into the thin air of high altitudes. Her momentum was carrying her more than her wings. She looked back at the stallion chasing her. A form-fitting cloth mask obscured his face, but the panicked flailing of his wings told her everything she needed to know.
The stallion quickly nocked another arrow to his bow, firing a desperate shot at the lighter pegasus in a last-ditch effort as his greater bulk pulled him down from the ever-thinning air. The arrow went wide by a dozen meters. Dash stowed her spear on her back and tucked her wings, diving at the helpless archer. The air warmed as it whipped past her exposed face. As rapid as their ascent had been, the descent was five times faster. Rainbow’s airspeed indicator topped one thousand kilometers per hour as she rocketed after her target.
Just as the stallion flared his wings to slow his descent, Dash slammed into his back, wrapping her legs around him, pinning his wings to his side. The two pegasi fell as one. The final phase of Dash’s plan was unfolding.
“Surrender!” she screamed into his ear.
He continued struggling against her grip, but it was like fighting iron shackles. She was not budging after working so hard to turn the tables.
“Drop your weapon, or I’ll put you through the kill box!” she threatened. Still no response. The pair hurtled through ten thousand meters, rapidly approaching the scenario’s edge.
“Come on! Give up, or I’ll take you out!”
Nine thousand. Eight thousand.
“This is your last warning! Drop your weapon!”
Just before seven thousand meters, the stallion finally gave in.
“Stop! I surrender! Pull up!”
Dash flared her wings, struggling to slow them both. Her altimeter dropped below six thousand five hundred. She released the stallion’s wings, allowing him to slow his own momentum. Desperately, the pair tried to pull up. Six thousand one hundred. Dash was still descending. Six thousand fifty. She was almost level. Six thousand twenty five. Almost.
At six thousand ten meters, Rainbow Dash finally pulled up, the stallion following directly behind her. When they had slowed to a reasonable velocity, Dash drew her spear, pointing its blunt tip at the enemy archer’s throat.
“Nice try, pal, but nopony outflies Rainbow Dash!”
Her prey panted heavily, struggling to form a coherent sentence. “You’re… crazy… know that?”
She responded by lightly tapping his nose with the spear’s padded tip. She was rewarded with an angry scowl. Ignoring the defeated stallion’s ire, she hoofed the transmit button for her radio crystals. “This is Copper Two-Eight. I’ve captured an enemy operative. Standing by for further instructions. Over.”
“Copper Actual to Copper Two-Eight. Nice work. Bring him to the coast – we’re mopping up here.”
“Roger that. On my way.” She prodded the archer with her spear. “You heard him. Get movin’. And don’t try anything funny, either – wouldn’t wanna get beat twice in one day, right?”
He rewarded Rainbow with a second angry scowl before reluctantly flying towards the coastline, his captor following close behind. Dash allowed herself an arrogant smirk. Not bad for my first mission, she thought, keeping her quarry close to the business end of her spear. Not bad at all.
NEXT CHAPTER: “Intrusion”
May 4th, 1005 New Solar Calendar
Morning found Rainbow Dash in the close-quarters training room, punching holes through the thick fabric bodies of training dummies. The mannequins did not have the level of detail to which she had become accustomed while training in Gamma Division’s headquarters on the other side of the Hub, but they could be used to perfect her technique.
“Ten reps in good form are worth more than a hundred in poor form,” as her instructors must have said a hundred thousand times.
A kick of her hind leg sent the spearhead completely through the dummy’s neck. She tightened her fetlock around the shaft, giving the weapon a sharp tug. It slid smoothly through the wound channel until reaching the spearhead. The metal point stuck for a moment before its razor edges tore through the brown fabric at a slight angle from its entrance. A frown crept onto Dash’s face. No matter how often she practiced, withdrawal from the target had always given her more trouble than it should. The expert spear-ponies she had worked with during training had assured her that it would go away as her technique improved, but progress had been slow.
Nevertheless, she continued practicing. Yesterday’s aerial victory had excited her more than anything except the prospect of returning to Ponyville on leave next week. The thrill of the chase and subsequent capture had not fully worn off yet, and Dash was channeling that energy and excitement towards something constructive, which she would not have had the discipline to do before joining RAID. As disappointing as the deferral of her Wonderbolt dreams had been, the personal improvement that came with being part of an elite organization like RAID was a decent consolation prize.
“Hah!” She buried the spear into another dummy’s throat, the layers of coarse burlap tearing cleanly as the magically sharpened weapon sunk through the simulated flesh. Once again, though, pulling the weapon free took more time and effort than it should. Rainbow sighed. Of the many words that could be used to describe the young pegasus, “patient” was not one of them.
I’ve got to get this right, she told herself time and time again. I have to prove that I deserve to be here as much as anypony else. If this is what it takes to be a Wonderbolt, then I’ll be the greatest spearpony in Equestria.
A full hour of practice passed before Dash was interrupted. Her mentor gently pushed open the room’s heavily padded door, carefully peering inside. As soon as she poked her head through the doorway, she witnessed an unfortunate dummy meet its destiny as Dash swiftly drove her spear through its torso. Once again, the spearhead caught on the fake pony’s side before it could be fully withdrawn, eliciting a quiet growl from the frustrated operative.
Spitfire entered the training room, silently shutting the door behind her. “Still having trouble with your technique?” she asked.
Dash’s immediate instinct was to deny there was any problem, but as soon as she opened her mouth to speak, the stern look on Spitfire’s face made her hastily reconsider. “Well, maybe a teensy bit. But it’s nothing I can’t handle!” She turned back to the pony simulacrum. “Just gotta get more practice, that’s all.”
The Wonderbolt captain could only sigh at her protegé. Even on the best of days, getting Dash to accept help was a Mareculean task. Confidence and independence were highly desirable traits in an Individual Augmentee, but being headstrong to the point of impacting mission readiness was a problem, no matter what division to which a pony belonged.
“I know what you’re – hrgh! – thinking,” Dash continued, sinking her weapon into burlap again. “You want to – nngh! – bring in the trainers again. Well – huh! – I don’t need your so-called ‘professionals.’ I’m – nyeh! – perfectly able to get better on my own.”
“Dash, there’s no shame in using professional trainers. My unit used them all the time. Hay, I still use ‘em. Do you know how many trainers and support staff the Wonderbolts have? Training never stops, whether you’re in RAID or on the Wonderbolts.” Spitfire tenderly placed a hoof on Dash’s back, ceasing the young operative’s practice strikes. “Don’t let your pride turn away the best help available.”
For the love of Celestia, not more training, Dash thought, grimacing at the possibility. I just got done with a full year of training. I am sick of training. Even the word “training” is starting to get annoying. Training this, training that, training everything! If I’m gonna be part of this outfit, I’d at least like to see some action.
She glanced at her mentor, who was eyeing her expectantly. Then again, if Spitfire used trainers when she was with RAID, maybe they aren’t so bad after all…
“You… you really think it’ll help?” Rainbow asked tentatively.
“I guarantee it,” the Wonderbolt captain answered. “An extra set of eyes and hooves might be just what the doctor ordered.” She glanced away for a moment, lost in thought. Just as Dash was about to ask what was on her mind, a mischievous smile slowly crept across the yellow pegasus’ face. “I can even bring in the instructor you paid really close attention to, if you want.”
Rainbow’s eyes widened. She fluttered her wings nervously, attempting to redirect the blood that was rapidly pooling in her face. “Uh, heh heh… w-what instructor?” she asked, her embarrassment betrayed by an involuntary shudder.
The cheeky grin on Spitfire’s face widened as her protegé blushed like a flight camp filly. “Stallion. Grey coat, blue mane. You know, the one you thought nopony saw you staring at when he wasn’t looking?”
Oh, ponyfeathers. “I-I was just… watching his technique! Yep! His technique. Y’know, the… thing he was supposed to be teaching us? Yeah, that.” She mustered the most innocent smile she could manage in a futile attempt to salvage her poker face. She knew it would work about as well for her as it had for her friends whenever they tried it, but she refused to go down without some kind of a fight.
As expected, Spitfire was not fooled. Out of mercy for her flustered student, she refrained from making a joke about the stallion’s ‘technique.’ As funny as she found it to be, further ruffling Dash’s feathers would be counterproductive. “So, book the spear instructor?”
“Ugh… fine, I’ll do it,” Rainbow conceded, her voice cracking along with her paper-thin facade. Upon seeing the victorious smirk on Spitfire’s face, she added, “Just don’t rub it in.”
“Agreed,” the Wonderbolt chuckled. “No need to make fun of a good decision, even if your reasoning is a little bit… suspicious.” She winked at Dash in spite of herself. A little ribbing would not irreparably damage the young operative. Seeing the imminent protest from her protege, she promptly changed the subject. “You should probably call it a day in here, by the way. You’ve got another training op tomorrow, right? The Hammer Scenario?”
Dash reluctantly abandoned her hopeless denial with a groan, dismissively waving a hoof in response. “Yeah, something like that. Who comes up with these names, anyway? I mean, ‘Hammer’ sounds cool and powerful, but where did ‘Lotus Bloom’ come from? Totally lame.”
Spitfire shrugged. “Random word generator?” she offered. “To be honest, I’ve never cared enough to ask anypony.”
“Well, it’s weird.”
“I’ll let those responsible know.” The Wonderbolt captain nodded towards the door. “It’s getting pretty close to lunchtime. Wanna go get some chow?”
Rainbow needed little convincing. She quickly stowed her practice gear and followed her mentor out of the heavily padded room.
05 MAY 05 MIL-STD CAL
Operation HAMMER mission clock: T minus 02:07:54
Gamma Division Ready Room
“Oh, come on, Gilda, it was totally radical!”
The scowl on the griffon’s face did little to dampen Rainbow’s excitement. Her aerial victory during the exercise two days ago had been replaying in her mind since she returned to the Hub. Unfortunately for Gilda, Spitfire, and everypony in earshot, she insisted on relating the story’s details ad nauseum. Though it had been well received the first couple times, Rainbow had never been one to pick up on subtle hints that enough was enough.
“I don’t think anypony else in RAID could’ve pulled off what I did back there,” she continued. “That was a Wonderbolt-grade performance. I captured a veteran operative on my very first training mission!”
Gilda made a show of rolling her eyes and groaning, finally getting fed up with her friend’s self-congratulatory discourses. “Alright, Dash, let’s get a couple things straight. That was no veteran you caught – he’s a rookie, same as you. A vet would’ve waited for you to stall out yourself on that little fly-straight-up maneuver before chasing after your helpless flank. Second, you tried to take on an entire squad of Gamma Division pegasi. Even for you, that’s just dumb. Did you really think you could take out seven operatives all by yourself?”
“You bet!” Dash devoured a large spoonful of her morning oatmeal, chewing loudly. “Ah codja go’en e’ry ‘ingur uhn o’ ‘em. Oh obrem.”
The griffon buried her head in her claws. “And I volunteered for this…”
Rainbow gulped down her spoonful of breakfast. “Aw, come on, G, you know you love me,” she said, a cocky grin on her face.
“Don’t push your luck.”
It was Dash’s turn to roll her eyes. “Yeah, whatever.” She took a sip of her coffee. Back home, she never touched the stuff, but she had picked up the habit over the course of her training. It was one of the few pleasures of an early morning “So, what am I doing today?”
Gilda shook her head in resignation before reaching into a bag on the floor. She produced several diagrams and a detailed map of a section of Equestria’s eastern coast. “You’re gonna be doing an airship boarding drill. You’ll be flying a patrol route before getting diverted to a mock cargo blimp over the ocean. It’s pretty much the same place as yesterday and the day before, but now there’s all sorts of close-in stuff that you’ll like.”
Dash leaned over to get a better look at the documents, taking another bite of her oatmeal as she did. There were schematics for the airship in question, the patrol route they’d fly, illustrations of proper room-clearing technique, and other assorted information of tactical value. Nothing in the information told her what she should be looking for, though.
“What’s the scenario? Salt smuggling? Border violation?”
The griffon shrugged. “Dunno. They’ll tell you after you get diverted. All part of the training – gotta be able to adapt to different missions.” She gave Dash a playful punch to the shoulder. “Nothing you can’t handle, right?”
“Hay yeah!” The two bumped claw to hoof.
Gilda was about to start explaining the dirigible’s blueprint when a klaxon blared to life in the ready room. It filled the room with its grating siren for a few seconds before the intercom came to life.
“Scramble! Scramble! Scramble! Unidentified contacts on course for Manehattan Approach No-Fly Zone. This is not a drill. I repeat – this is not a drill. All available units, scramble to intercept.”
For a fraction of a second, Dash froze. She was unsure of what was happening. The world around her stopped in an instant, and yet it continued to move. In fact, it was moving quickly. She was confused by the apparent contradiction until she realized that she had reacted without even thinking. Her training had taken over, moving her hooves before she knew what was happening.
Once her mind caught up to her body, she found herself galloping from the corner containing the small mess area towards a chain-link door covering a recess in the concrete walls leading to the armory. The quartermaster flattened himself against the wall, narrowly avoiding being trampled underhoof by the sudden surge of ponies barreling through the opening. Dash hardly have him a second glance as she bolted into the steel-plated room.
Inside, controlled chaos took hold. The dim red lights turned everypony to silhouettes as they threw open lockers crammed full of armor and weapons, all racing against the clock to don their gear and deploy to meet the unknown head-on. Rainbow carefully slipped through the crowd, bobbing and weaving around her fellow operatives to reach her temporary locker near the back of the crimson-lit room.
She pushed her way between a pair of bulky stallions to arrive at a grey metal door with her name scrawled on a piece of tape at the top. The locker swung open after a hard kick from the pegasus, revealing several long spears, a matte black bodysuit, and a headset with a wraparound visor. Dash quickly slipped into the armored garment and attached the headset to her suit’s crystal communication suite. Glowing icons danced across her field of vision as the internal systems came online, checking everything from armor integrity to altitude and heading.
In her haste, she grabbed the padded-tip training spear she had readied for the day’s exercise. She did not notice her error until she had already closed the door and taken several galloping strides towards the armory’s exit, where she did a quick about-face and replaced the collapsible contraption with the razor-sharp weapon she needed.
Back in the ready room, the platoon commander was shouting rapid-fire orders at the operatives as they filed out of the armory. Even with years of training and military discipline, it was nearly impossible to fight back against the chaos that had descended after the call. Undaunted, the seasoned officer shouted over the din, fighting for control of the situation.
“Quick Reaction Force troopers need to gear up first! Everyone else can wait! First Squad, get to the launch tunnel and organize there! Second Squad, you’re right behind them! TEAMCOM is Channel 3 for this op. Squad Leaders, make sure your ponies have their comm gear properly set. Priority is a quick takeoff, operatives! We need to get airborne!”
He stood on his hind legs to get a view over the swarming pegasi, seeking out the one variable to which he was unaccustomed. As soon as he located Rainbow Dash, he charged through the crowd until he was close enough to speak without yelling.
“Where’s your handler? The griffin?”
Dash pointed to the mess area as she clipped her spear onto her back and performed a final check on her armor. The commander made a beeline for Gilda’s table, waving to get her attention. He made exaggerated gestures as he spoke, the meaning of which were lost on Rainbow. She was about to follow Second Squad through the door to the launch tunnel prep area when the heavily armored stallion flew past her, shouting an order as he passed.
“You’re Third Squad on this op! She’ll fill you in!”
The unusual order slowed Dash’s thought process as she tried to make sense of it. Looking back at Gilda, though, she saw her old friend vigorously pointing towards the launch tunnel entrance with an expression of disbelief at her assigned operative’s delay on her face. The pegasus quickly complied, galloping through the gap in the concrete walls.
05 MAY 05 MIL-STD CAL
Operation HAMMER mission clock: -[MISSION SCRUBBED]-
200 kilometers inland from Equestrian coast
“You read me, Dash?”
Gilda’s gravelly voice was difficult to distinguish from the background static of the crystal matrix, but Rainbow Dash could hear her clearly enough to give a weak reply in the affirmative. She could hear the sound of mechanical adjustments being made on the other end of the connection, equipment being disconnected and reconfigured for a stronger signal. Seconds later, the hissing static disappeared with a pop, replacing the previously poor signal for one that was only mediocre.
Dash signed in frustration. “It’s a crystal comm, Gilda, not DJ PON-3’s speakers. It’s only gonna get so good.”
“Whatever. I’ve gotta brief you, anyway.” Papers rustled through the earpiece for a moment before the griffon spoke again. “You’re a separate squad for this mission. Your job is to provide rapid-response aerial combat assistance wherever and whenever it’s needed. Callsign is Hazard Three-One.
“As for the mission itself, about twenty-five minutes ago, the Manehattan North Border Watch Station detected a group of three unknown contacts approaching at high speed and low altitude. They didn’t respond to communication attempts and then they started wandering towards the Manehattan Approach No-Fly Zone, which is a bunch of lame little islands Theta Division’s got some secret facility on. You know those weirdo spooks - they get their tails in a knot every time somepony sneezes in their direction. Basically, we were scrambled because they’re way overprotective. They won’t tell us what’s there, but apparently it’s worth diverting an entire training op to keep it all hush-hush.”
Rainbow snorted. “If they wanted it to stay secret, why build it on a bunch of islands right outside of Manehattan?” She shook her head in disbelief. “Some intelligence branch we’ve got.”
“Tell me about it. The spooks are still working on confirming the contacts’ identity, but their approach bearing means they most likely came from…” Gilda’s voice trailed off. Silent seconds ticked away on Dash’s display clock without a reply. To her adrenaline-spiked mind, though, it felt as if hours had passed in apprehension. When Gilda’s voice returned, it was barely audible as she finished her sentence. “…from the Griffon Kingdom.”
“The Griffon Kingdom?!” Dash nearly fell from the sky as she heard Gilda’s assessment. She barely managed to stay in formation with the two squads ahead of her as she recovered her wings’ natural rhythm. “What’s their problem with us? Why are they trying to sneak up on us?”
“No idea, but they’re two minutes from entering the NFZ. If… if the contacts enter...” A dull thud sounded through the earpiece, quieting its output, but Dash could still hear Gilda’s muffled voice ask somepony in the background, “Is this for real?” A moment later, the griffon returned in full clarity, deadpanning the remainder of her sentence. “... you’re cleared to use lethal force.”
Objectively, Rainbow knew what the words meant, but she had never heard them used outside of a simulation or training exercise. The gravity of her situation began to sink in, slowly seeping into the furthest recesses of her consciousness. Lethal force. The words echoed through her mind. She was flying into combat – real, unfettered combat that would ultimately take lives. Despite months of training, despite assurances from her trainers that the scenarios would mentally prepare her for the real thing, despite RAID’s “live for combat” culture… Dash found herself scared. The spear on her back felt heavy as she flew towards the coast.
Three red diamond outlines appeared on her visor’s display, each labeled with their distance to the edge of the No-Fly Zone. To Dash’s dismay, the numbers were small and getting smaller, representing the small amount of time left until she would need to engage in mortal combat. RAID’s advantage in numbers held little comfort for her. She had signed up to be a Wonderbolt, not a killer.
The numbers ticked lower and lower, despite Rainbow’s silent pleas that they stop before she would be compelled to act. The five-digit display was already down to only three numerals, then two, finally reaching one for a split-second before all that remained was a single flashing 0.
Her headset crackled to life with the sound of the platoon commander’s voice. “They’ve entered the NFZ - operatives, you are cleared to engage! Take them out!”
In an instant, the carefully maintained formation disintegrated as fliers scattered in every direction, each pair sticking close to his or her wingpony. Dash nosed up above the chaos, keeping her eyes open for any sign of trouble. The incoming griffons were woefully outnumbered, but they were bigger, stronger, and had claws and a hooked beak – apex predators with sentient minds. Even for highly trained RAID fliers, griffons would present a challenging fight.
She tried not to concentrate on the danger of her adversaries, instead forcing herself to analyze the approach pattern of the griffons. They had been staying low to delay detection by Border Watch sensors, but they should have known that their presence would not stay a secret for very long. Dash guessed that they would pull up soon, trading speed for altitude in a bid to either gain a tactical advantage over the response team or to beat a hasty retreat.
Seconds later, the griffons surprised her by executing a highly coordinated break of formation in which all three fliers separated from each other, the outside two peeling away to the left and right while the flight lead in the center pulled up, furiously pumping his wings as he rocketed skyward. He was cautiously followed by three pairs of RAID operatives, closely mirroring the griffon’s maneuvers while making sure to check their eagerness to engage the interlopers. The remainder of the response team’s pegasi dropped down to follow the other two intruders, leveling out just above the foamy crests of the ocean below. Dash elected to keep her altitude, monitoring the engagement on her projected display. She could see the three red diamonds swerving and jinking in attempts to shake the tailing blue squares tailing them.
Despite the best attempts of the two wave-skimming griffons, the discipline and training of the RAID operatives following them was too much, and the distance between hunter and prey slowly closed. One of the pair that had stayed low was boxed in by two archers, both of whom fired simultaneously. His body went limp, tumbling end over end until crashing into the ocean below, skipping off of the surface once before disappearing into the murky water. On Dash’s visor, the red diamond flickered out, replaced by similarly colored text reading NEUTRALIZED before it, too, disappeared.
The pegasi that had been pursuing him circled the point of impact like vultures crowding a savannah kill, closely scanning the sea for any sign of the wounded griffon. High above, Dash looked over the scene with a deep, instinctive churning in her gut. For a fleeting moment, she hoped the griffon’s head would burst from beneath the waves, gasping for air and crying out in surrender. As two minutes ticked away on the mission clock, though, it became clear to the RAID operatives that the enemy was down for good. The circling pegasi broke off to engage the other two intruders.
Dash chastised herself for her moment of weakness. I can’t feel sorry for them. They’ll jump on me if I hesitate. Besides, they flew all the way across the ocean to get here. It’s not like this is a big misunderstanding. They meant to show up here. She shook her head vigorously, trying to clear her mind. There was still a fight to win, and she could not waste time on self-recrimination in the middle of combat. Such luxuries could wait until her return to the Hub.
Above her, the lead griffon was putting up a better fight than his two teammates. His maneuvers were crisp and precise, preventing any of his pursuers from closing the gap between them. He was as fast and agile as any of the pegasi on his tail, and he clearly had experience with aerial combat. Every time a pair started to advance on him, he would bank towards another pair, setting the two groups on a collision course with each other and ruining their carefully controlled pursuit.
Rainbow watched from a distance in awe. Even though she was constantly checking on the status of the other chase, she took no more time than necessary before turning her attention back to the lead griffon’s stunning aerial display. Despite being outnumbered by pegasi ten to one, he owned the sky around him. His mastery of aerial combat was evident even to a rookie like Dash. He kept the pegasi tailing him far enough away that they could not reach him with their weapons, but he never outran them so much that the archers could get a clear shot. If he realized the futility of his situation, his flying did not reflect it. He almost looked like he was enjoying the chase, as though it was a simple game of tag with Flight Camp foals.
A red arrow projected on her visor prompted Dash to turn her attention back to the second fight. The griffon had gotten herself surrounded but was still fighting viciously. She had wounded one of the operatives chasing her and was trying to find a way through the ring of pegasi that had encircled her. The wounded operative was being carried away from the fight on a large stallion’s back, their armor hooked together to prevent the smaller pegasus from helplessly falling to the ground. The remaining fliers closed in on the trapped intruder, approaching from any direction she was not facing. The ring closed in slowly, only backing away to avoid the increasingly desperate swipes of her claws. Even from Dash’s distant vantage point, she could see fear gripping the doomed creature. She was one mistake away from death, and she knew it.
The surrounding ponies closed in like a pack of wolves, each ready to attack their prey when the moment was right. One lunged at the griffon with a broadsword clutched in his snarling teeth only to have his efforts rewarded with the intruder’s claws raking down his back. His armor deflected the brunt of the attack, but a slow ooze of red began to issue from a razor-thin slice in the weak points. The stallion winced as he sheathed his sword, flying to the supporting legs of his wingpony.
Though the swordspony’s attack had been successfully countered, it left the griffon off-balance and vulnerable. The remaining pegasi converged at once, obscuring the helpless intruder behind the bulk of a dozen pony bodies. Once again, the red diamond on Dash’s visor disappeared, overlaid with the emotionless acknowledgement of NEUTRALIZED for a fleeting moment. When she looked away, she convinced herself it was only to turn her attention back to the last remaining chase.
In an instant, the griffon leader’s flight style shifted dramatically. Gone was the apparent levity with which he dodged his pursuers, replaced with a sudden drive that bordered on panic. His turns were no longer graceful and precise. His timing ignored the pegasi behind him. His wings beat frantically, biting into the air with every feather. He nosed down and streamlined his body, sacrificing everything in the name of speed. The ponies behind him struggled to close the intervening distance, but despite their effort and training, the griffon was pulling away.
For a moment, Dash watched him hurtle towards the sea, slowly putting more and more space between himself and the operatives attempting to catch him. As she realized they would not catch him, a wave of relief began to sweep over her. There would be no more death today.
Just as she was beginning to let down her guard, the earpiece integrated in her headset buzzed with the platoon commander’s voice. “He can’t get away! Rainbow Dash, you’re the only one who can catch him! Get after him!”
Rainbow’s stomach dropped as she heard the order, destroying the respite she thought she had earned. “W-what? Why? Can’t we just let him retreat?”
“Celestia dammit, Dash, he’s got intel on our response capability! He can’ be allowed to escape Move your flank!”
Before she had consciously reached a decision, her training took over. She clipped her spear to her back, tucking her legs and putting all of her strength into each beat of her wings. She gained velocity at breakneck speed, powerful wing muscles propelling her light frame across the sky. The wind tore at her mane and tail. She could not remember ever accelerating so quickly before, even when performing Sonic Rainbooms at home.
Her visor display automatically displayed the distance separating her from the last griffon. The number was growing, but it grew more slowly with each passing second, finally stopping and reversing towards zero. Ten-thousand meters shrank to nine-thousand nine-hundred meters and lower. Dash gritted her teeth in anticipation of a grueling sprint. Nine-thousand five-hundred meters. She could feel her acceleration taper off as she reached her maximum speed, the beginnings of a mach cone forming around her front hooves. Nine-thousand meters. The weight of all her gear prevented her from going supersonic, but she was still catching up. Eight-thousand meters. She tore through a cloud, not bothering to maneuver out of the way. Seven-thousand meters. Her wing muscles began to burn. Six-thousand meters. She had been sprinting for nearly three full minutes.
Far in the distance, she could barely see the last few remaining operatives break off pursuit as the commander ordered them to make way for the Individual Augmentee who was coming in hot from behind. Even from nearly five kilometers away the large body of the griffon could be seen as a speck just above the horizon. For but a split second, she wondered if his wings hurt as much as hers did.
The griffon must have been tiring, as Dash noticed the distance readout was falling more quickly than it had been. She was still over three kilometers away, but she was closing fast. She would catch the leader in less than a minute. Straining to maintain her speed, Rainbow grimaced and pushed the searing pain in her muscles to the back of her mind, concentrating only on speed.
From two kilometers away, the dot on the horizon grew wings, slowly morphing into a vaguely griffon-like shape. In forty seconds, the two would meet side-by-side. Twenty agonizing seconds ticked away, both fliers pushing themselves to their limits. The distance readout dropped to three digits. Dash pulled up slightly, positioning herself just above the retreating intruder’s flight path. Five hundred meters to go. She brought her legs to her belly, pressing them against her armored flight suit as much as possible. Glancing at the distance readout, she saw there was less than one hundred meters remaining. The wind roaring in her ears went silent as she paused. A heartbeat later, she acted.
Her legs thrust out from beneath her, timed perfectly to impact squarely on the fleeing griffon’s back. She could feel a sickening crunching as she shattered the target’s ribs and vertebrae. As soon as she passed the retreating intruder, she flared her wings to quickly reduce her speed enough to engage the interloper, but she soon discovered that further combat would be unnecessary.
Turning her head, she saw the limp body of the lead griffon skip off the ocean’s surface several times before making one large final splash as it slowed to a halt in the waves, floating lifelessly in the blue-green water. He did not sink like his subordinate, but bobbed up and down with the waves, limbs splayed out in every direction. His mouth hung open, seawater flowing in and out.
Dash hovered above the surface, staring uncomprehendingly at the result of her chase. Some distant, rational part of her brain knew what had happened, but the rest of her mind rebelled at the notion, refusing to believe what her eyes told her. The griffon was dead, but surely it was not her fault.
Nearly five minutes passed before the first operative caught up to her. He circled above the floating griffon, keying his crystal comm.
“Splash one, splash one. Confirmed E-KIA.”
“Copy, E-KIA. Kill credit?”
“Kill confirmed for Hazard Three-One.”
“Roger. All Hazard units, mission objectives fulfilled. Return to base. Form and report, starting with Hazard One-One. Give weapons check and status reports...”
Dash did not hear the rest of the orders.
05 MAY 05 MIL-STD CAL
Everypony in the auditorium jumped at the sound of hooves slamming onto the stone floor. On stage, flanked by her personal guard, RAID’s Commanding Officer struggled to control her anger before addressing the gathered operatives. From what Dash could tell, she was one misstep away from completely blowing up at the crowd before her. Her cheeks were clearly flushed underneath her pale yellow coat, and the expression on her face was one that Rainbow had only seen on Twilight Sparkle right before bursting into a flaming ball of rage.
The shock only lasted for a moment before somepony shouted, “Attention on deck!” Dash was certain her spine would have broken if she had moved any faster. Standing in such rigid posture sent sharp pains stabbing down her back and into her wings, even after the Chi Division medics had cast some painkiller spells. It took all of her discipline to maintain her position.
Fortunately for her, the CO was not interested in formality. “At ease,” she said, clear deliberation in her voice. Everypony took their seats, stewing in apprehension of the tirade that was sure to follow. Her real name was kept classified, but the Commandant, as she was formally known, was famous for tearing into operatives after a botched mission. Nopony was sure how the day’s intercept could be considered a failure, but if everything had gone right, they would not be in RAID’s highly secure briefing room at lunchtime.
Spitfire and Gilda sat on either side of Rainbow Dash, doing their best to comfort her after returning in a near-comatose state. Thanks to Spitfire, she had recovered most of her faculties since landing, but she could hardly bear to look at Gilda. The mere sight of her made Dash sick to her stomach at first. It had been a full hour before she could utter a coherent sentence to her old friend, assuring the worried griffon that “it’s not your fault.” Spitfire had initially asked Gilda to leave, but Dash mustered the strength to intervene, realizing that she would eventually want both of them around.
At the front of the room, the Commandant addressed the room angrily. “Somepony had better explain what happened today, and it had better be an answer that Celestia herself would give.”
Unsurprisingly, nopony dared speak. The Commandant flicked her sky-blue tail in annoyance. “Nothing, huh? I’m just imagining the reports of some amateur-hour intercept mission that killed a griffon patrol squad? That never happened?” Once again, she was met with silence. “Well, if that’s the case, than somepony had better get over to Beta HQ and tell them to un-buck themselves, because now I’m getting fantastic stories of aerial combat that simply didn’t happen!”
She paused for a moment, as if actually expecting somepony to stand up and start trotting off towards the massive steel door leading to Beta Division’s underground headquarters complex. “Well?” she asked, looking around the crowd. “Anypony? Or is there something you all know that I don’t?”
On the opposite side of the auditorium, a pony in his dress blue uniform stood, responding in carefully measured tones. “We detected three contacts approaching the Manehattan Approach NFZ. They did not respond to Border Watch’s communication attempts. We scrambled units that were preparing for a training exercise to intercept them.”
The Commandant’s eyes narrowed as she stared at the speaker. “Well, if it isn’t the infamous Colonel North Star. How did I know Theta was behind this mess? You bunch of spooks seem like more trouble than you’re worth.”
North Star shifted uneasily under the condemnation. “Manehattan Approach NFZ is well-known to be restricted airspace. We house highly sensitive projects there that would be a grave threat to Equestria’s security if they fell into the wrong hands.”
“So, what are you suggesting, Colonel? We send out a full platoon every time somepony gets a little too close to your precious islands? Do the words ‘black ops’ have any meaning to you?” She stood on the edge of the stage, looking squarely at the head of Theta Division. “Do I really need to remind the head of our intelligence branch that we are a classified organization?”
“No, ma’am, but the intruders-”
“Sending an entire platoon on an intercept mission over two hundred kilometers from our base is hardly my idea of secrecy, Colonel!” she barked. “Leave that to the pompous idiots known as the Royal Guard! You and I both know how much they love flying around in that flashy gold armor they’re oh-so-proud of.” A couple of the Guard veterans in the crowd stirred slightly at the insult, but quickly checked their movements as the Commandant continued. “Now, I’m gonna go out on a limb here and guess that it was you who authorized lethal force on this little sojourn. Would I be right?
She gritted her teeth, taking a deep breath to keep her fury in check. “Now, I know that you know that I am the only one who can give the final authorization for use of lethal force during peacetime. Let’s cut to the chase, then, shall we?”
North Star nervously cleared his throat before responding. “It was determined that the risk of a security breach at the Oat Rock Facility was too great to chance-”
The Commandant cut him off, clearly expecting his answer. “I realize that those islands are kind of your little pet project, but that does not allow you to undermine my authority in these matters! If I think there’s a risk of a breach, then I will let the dogs off the chain. Until that point, I expect my Division Heads to keep their operations on a short leash.”
She glared at North Star for a moment longer before shifting her gaze to the opposite side of the audience, near Dash’s seat. “Is Bountiful Harvest here yet?”
“Present, ma’am,” replied a mare in the row directly in front of Rainbow. Even in the dim light, the cyan pegasus could see an eerie similarity between her and Applejack’s neighbor.
“Is the Guard in contact with the griffons yet, Colonel?”
The orange-maned earth pony nodded. “Yes, ma’am, and none of it’s pretty. They’ve agreed to keep the whole thing under wraps, since, technically, they were the ones out of line, but they’re mad as Tartarus over the whole thing.”
A frustrated groan escaped the Commandant’s lips. “That figures. They send a patrol into restricted airspace for Celestia knows what reason and somehow we’re the bad guys for knocking it out of the sky. I’ve got half a mind to send that new speedster of ours there with a personal message for that birdbrain King Ivory. Maybe he’ll keep those hawk eyes of his on those ‘Proud Griffon Warriors’ instead of the latest pretty tail to walk through his palace.”
Colonel Bountiful Harvest was at a loss for words. Even after working with the Commandant for years, she was only mostly sure it was meant figuratively. The half-crazed mare was known to have little patience for stupidity, especially when politicians were involved. Given King Ivory’s rather chauvinistic approach towards females of all species, nopony would have been particularly surprised if she had flown across the ocean to deliver the message herself just to tweak his beak.
Luckily, she still had her wits about her. “Is it a problem?”
“No, ma’am. The Captain of the Guard and Minister of State are handling it.”
The Commandant signed in relief. “Finally, something goes right today. Wouldn’t have needed it if things had been done properly from the get-go, but something’s still better than nothing, I guess.” She turned to address Colonel North Star again. “Theta Division has seventy-two hours to fix its horseapples. If it isn’t done by then, you won’t even be able to get command of a marching band after I’m done with you. Is that understood?”
The little remaining color in North Star’s purple face drained. “Y-yes, ma’am.”
Finally satisfied that things would be properly addressed, the Commandant spoke to the entire gathered crowd. “Remember, fillies and gentlecolts, we’re here to work in the shadows. If our actions cannot be explained as bad luck, incompetent workers, or a freak accident, then we have failed. We do not start wars. We prevent them. ‘Mishaps’ like this morning cannot happen. When they do, death follows - you all saw that today.
“You’re all professionals. If something seems wrong, stand up and say, ‘For Luna’s sake, stop.’ Make your superiors understand why you don’t like the situation. You may be the last line of defense that prevents another fiasco. Maybe you noticed something they didn’t. If you’re wrong, then they’ll explain why. Even if you get chewed out for lawyering it too much, that’s better than sitting in these chairs answering my questions about why three griffons died as a result of your actions.
“Let’s move forward from here. Learn from this. No more mistakes. Dismissed.”
May 5th, 1005 New Solar Calendar
The soft glow of the digital clock bathed the room in a turquoise meant to lull ponies to sleep. To Rainbow Dash, however, it only served as a reminder of a motionless griffon body floating below her, coat and feathers slick with the salty seawater that would eventually claim it forever. It reminded her of the comm traffic that gave credit for the kill to her callsign. It reminded her of the long flight back to the Hub she spent in denial. It reminded her of being unable to meet Gilda’s eyes when she arrived.
She rolled onto her back, her muscles and wings aching in protest, once again reminding her of events she still refused to acknowledge. Adjusting to lay on her side, she stared into the clock’s display but only saw a counter ticking down the meters between her and the exhausted griffon ahead. In frustration, she lay flat on her stomach, burying her face in her pillow and pulling the scratchy sheets over her head. Whether she lay there for a minute or an hour was irrelevant to her. She longed for the distraction of sleep and dreams.
The scent of detergent wafted from the pillowcase into her nose. She initially thought nothing of it, but some distant part of her memory recognized the smell. It was familiar but not everyday. When she bothered to wash her sheets back in Ponyville, she used a different brand; some off-brand liquid that hardly cost five bits. This scent was clearly different. She had smelled it before, though, of that she was certain. Closing her eyes and delving deep into her memory, she searched for its proper place in her past. It had been the same smell since she arrived at the Hub’s barracks, but it was a more distant sensation that that. Something from back further, back home, in Ponyville. Not her own sheets, but…
Her eyes snapped wide open as she remembered. This was the smell of Twilight Sparkle’s sheets. She had smelled it at one of their many slumber parties in the library; all of her pillowcases smelled alike. Twilight and Rarity had somehow gotten into a discussion about what brand she used to wash her linens, and the purple unicorn had replied that she used the same bulk brand used by all Equestrian government agencies because it was what she had grown accustomed to as Celestia’s student in Canterlot. It was neither cheap nor easy to get it specially shipped to Ponyville, but she considered it one of the few luxuries she allowed herself.
Though the memory was a pleasant one, Dash realized that she had forgotten so many other things about home, about her life back in Ponyville, about her friends. She had been away for over a year, only visiting during her post-graduation leave. Though she kept in contact with her weekly letters, it was a pitiful substitute for running through the orchard with Applejack or playing pranks with Pinkie Pie or anything she ever did with her five best friends. She had been extricated from the group in Ponyville to live a life she did not want, all for her goal of becoming a Wonderbolt.
She imagined her friends gathered in the library once more, talking and laughing as they put off sleep for just one more story. They had settled down hours ago, but none of them wanted to sleep. “Slumber party” had been long ago agreed upon as a ridiculous misnomer. They had enjoyed themselves all night and would continue to have a good time until somepony was reminded of their friend in absentia. Their smile would fade, replaced with a sullen pout. Nopony would need to ask why, they all knew. They missed her, too.
The thought of her friends was already enough to cause Rainbow to recoil as she tried to deny an uncomfortable realization that was slowly seeping through her mind. In her weakened state, it was almost overwhelming. She was “living the dream,” but it was a twisted, unrecognizable perversion of her fillyhood fantasies. It had turned her drive into a weapon for somepony else to wield and taken her from her home and friends to hide her in a hole in the rock, just waiting for the next call.
What happened to me? I’m the Element of Loyalty, but I haven’t seen my friends more than once in the last year. I signed up to be a Wonderbolt, but now I’m a ki— something else. Something that I never wanted to be. When did things become so… un-radical?
She would never admit it, but right then, Rainbow Dash cried.
NEXT CHAPTER: “The North Wind Blows”
13 MAY 05 MIL-STD CAL
Dash strolled down the packed street, weaving between slower ponies in her way. Though the road was wide enough to comfortably fit two full-size carriages side-by-side, the dense crowd completely blocked vehicle passage. She tried her best to look casual, but having grown up in a pegasus city, her first time walking through Fillydelphia’s Near West Side was overwhelming. Ponies, zebras, griffons, and a dozen other species from all around the world gathered and lived in a cultural collision, flooding the streets with sights, smells, and sounds that could not be found anywhere else.
The smell of grilled corn on the cob wafted from one of the many carts parked on the side of the street, calling out to the rainbow pegasus with its siren call of salt, pepper, and melted butter. She trotted through the masses, passing a street band playing an upbeat blues tune to the great amusement of the gathered crowd. As she approached the stand, her lolling tongue and entranced gaze were all the zebra behind the grill needed to figure out that he had snared another customer. Dash retrieved three bits from her saddlebag, hardly taking her eyes off of the roasted corncob being slathered in butter and seasonings.
For any non-pegasus, eating corn on the cob while moving would have been a challenge, but Rainbow simply hovered a few feet off of the ground, staying to the edge of the crowd to avoid accidentally smacking somepony with her wings. She drifted past storefronts, savoring the delicious treat in her hooves.
After a few minutes of nibbling at the corncob, she was left with a barren husk and several butter-saturated napkins. A nearly full trashcan was located after a brief search, where she tossed the remnants of her meal and alighted on her hooves once more. A shifting weight in her saddlebags reminded her of her purpose in the surprisingly interesting neighborhood. A quick check of the tourist map she had procured told her that her destination was just a few blocks away.
She continued down the street, passing more food stands, musicians, and junk peddlers than she had ever seen before in her life. If she had not been on a strict timetable, she would have stayed to enjoy the unique experience. A quick glance inside a shop window told her that she had only a few minutes to go before somepony assumed something had gone wrong.
Dash stopped at an unremarkable apartment building, its light blue paint peeling back to reveal older coats of dull white. In some places, the wood showed through completely. A rickety fire escape ran down one side, zigzagging between floors before ending in a rusty ladder Dash wouldn’t trust to hold the weight of a foal. The lower windows were covered with sheets of plywood, and every window above them was coated in a layer of grime that spoke to the years since their last encounter with soap and water. Electrical wires ran from poles in the street to a rat’s nest of a junction box hanging haphazardly from the wall.
Wow, she thought. Gilda said it would be run-down, but she didn’t say it would be this run-down.
The crowd was much thinner this far down the street, with most creatures slowly shuffling past each other, as lifeless as the building facades that surrounded them. Music from street bands could still be heard, but their bluesy chords mixed together in a discordant cacophony of senseless noise. The vibrant Near West Side was beginning to fade into the far less welcoming neighborhood of Fillydelphia Heights.
It was there, on that dilapidated city street, that Rainbow Dash had been ordered to make a special delivery. “Your speed,” she had been told, “will allow you to keep the components safe should somepony try to intercept you en route.” She did not know what components she was carrying nor who might try to stop her. The only information she had been given was the time, location, and method of delivery. If she had been correctly informed, somepony would be opening the door to take the box from her saddlebag in less than five minutes. After that, she was to return directly to the Hub.
Dash stood outside the door, waiting for it to open. She had never been good at waiting. To a pony capable of traveling ten miles in just one minute, five minutes felt like an eternity. It made her very uncomfortable to stand still for too long, a feeling exacerbated by amorous looks from passing ponies mistaking her for a very different kind of professional. One grimy stallion began to approach her, but a cold glare from the pegasus warned him of his grave error before he compounded it. He stumbled off into the street with a mumbled apology, leaving Rainbow Dash more annoyed and impatient than ever.
To her great relief, the door behind her creaked open, revealing a haggard unicorn mare with square-framed glasses adorning her periwinkle face. Her light brown mane had been pulled back in a bun, but the work was old and sloppy, betrayed by the many loose strands falling into her eyes and around her drooping ears. She eyed Rainbow Dash with a panicked expression, quickly glancing down either side of the street.
Dash noticed the poor mare’s condition, but chose to ignore it in favor of leaving the depressing neighborhood as quickly as possible. “It’s about time you showed up. This is some place you’ve-“
“Shh! Get inside!” the mare implored, motioning towards the entrance with her hoof.
Rainbow cocked her head at the unkempt mare. “Inside? But my orders are to deliver this thing and leave.”
“I don’t have time to explain. Just get in here!”
Cautiously eyeing the paranoid operative, she quickly trotted into the dingy foyer, watching as her contact glanced left and right before closing and locking the heavy wooden door. The pink operative’s cutie mark was clearly visible, a magnifying glass and quill crossed over a scroll of parchment. She had seen a similar motif before – the Spyglass, Quill, and Bolt insignia of RAID’s most mysterious Division.
In a sudden moment of clarity, the strange situation made sense to Dash in an instant. Theta was running the mission.
The pink unicorn exhaled deeply before turning around, shooing Rainbow up a flight of stairs further into the dimly lit building. She wrinkled her nose as a moldy odor assaulted her, wafting from discolored stains in the ceiling and walls. A thick layer of dust and insect bodies had accumulated on the sill of the staircase’s only window. Incandescent light bulbs glowed a dull orange light, hung from exposed wires. To Dash, it seemed like the building hadn’t seen a repair since before she was born. Theta’s presence in such a dump was baffling. The few times she had seen Theta operatives, they had always been immaculately groomed and completely engrossed in their shiny new equipment.
When Rainbow reached the stairwell’s first landing, the frazzled unicorn hurriedly directed her towards one of the many grimy doors lining the hallway. The Theta operative hoofed a section of doorframe, pushing it into the wall with a loud click. A familiar aura surrounded the pair, but no voice announced their identities. Instead, the chipped-paint façade of the door vanished in a bright flash, replaced with a matte black metal surface. It noiselessly slid to the side a moment after appearing.
“Not bad. Y’know, for a unicorn,” Dash remarked.
The pink operative snorted. “You should see what happens when it doesn’t recognize the pony trying to open it.”
With a smirk, the unicorn nodded towards the floor. “You’re standing just above an anti-pony mine.”
Dash stared wide-eyed at her hooves, color slowly draining from her face.
Rolling her eyes at the rookie, the Theta operative led Rainbow through the disguised door into a dimly lit room crammed full of computers, displays, antennae, and all other manner of arcane devices the purpose of which Dash could hardly fathom. A middle-aged brown pegasus stallion sat at a monitor in the corner, holding a hoof to the earphones resting atop his head. Jagged lines slowly scrolled across the blue display, occasionally spiking into large peaks and troughs.
“What’s he doing,” Dash asked, “watching for earthquakes?”
Ignoring the question, the unicorn trotted to her compatriot and tapped him on the shoulder, rousing him from the trancelike state into which he had fallen. She wordlessly pointed to Rainbow.
“Ah! Just the pony I’ve been waiting for,” he exclaimed in a clipped Canterlot accent. “That is, of course, if you’re here to make a delivery. That is your purpose here, I presume?”
“Yeah, I guess. I wasn’t told a whole lot about this whole deal,” Dash replied. She loosened her saddlebags and began to shake them off, but a sudden panicked outburst from both Theta operatives stopped her.
“What?” she asked, confused. “I’m giving you whatever it is you need.”
The stallion shifted uncomfortably. “Yes, but the item you’re carrying is exceedingly expensive. It wouldn’t do to have you dropping it on the floor like yesterday’s cabbage.” He took to his wings, hovering over to Dash and taking the saddlebag in his forelegs. “I’ll take this from here, darling. I’m afraid you can’t be of any further help at the moment.”
Dash’s curiosity and discomfort at being called ‘darling’ by the older stallion combined into a retort with more venom than she had originally intended. She swatted his hooves away, backing up towards the door.
“Now, wait just a minute, ya Fancy Pants-wannabe. I’ve been kept out in the cold since the beginning of this delivery run. Everypony’s been acting like the world’s gonna end ever since that thing last week. I want to know what’s going on, and I’m not going to give you whatever this is until you creepy spooks tell me!”
Both Theta operatives stopped in their tracks, slowly turning to face each other. After a still moment, the pegasus nodded towards Rainbow without breaking eye contact with his partner, who repeated the gesture, wide-eyed. The pegasus signaled his confirmation with another subtle nod. Glancing sideways at Dash, the unicorn sighed and shrugged at her partner, who returned the signal.
The wordless exchange did not help Dash’s sense of exclusion. She gritted her teeth, preparing for the same response she had heard so many times already. to her surprise, though, the reply was far from typical.
“Rainbow Dash, we brought you inside because the situation has changed. I don’t know why you’ve been kept in the dark so far, but things have changed a bit. Even we can’t be certain until we get what you’re carrying. After we get it running, I’ll read you into the current operation.” She nervously glanced back at the screen. “Recent, uh, developments have given us the authority to bring in outside operatives if we deem it prudent. It was a bit of a last-minute decision, hence the unusual exchange at the door.”
“Finally! It’s about time somepony told me something.” She carefully removed the saddlebag, relinquishing it to the unicorn’s telekinetic grip. The bag gently floated away from her. She met the gaze of the Theta pegasus, suddenly feeling a small twinge of guilt. “Sorry about… all that, though. It’s been a tough week for me.”
He adjusted his square-rimmed glasses with a hoof before jovially replying, “Ah, don’t worry about it. I heard about your rather troubling mission just the other day. Nasty bit of business, getting your first kill in combat. There’s no easy way to go about it. I remember when I got mine, way back when I flew with the Gamma teams. Hardly ate for three days until my lieutenant sat me down and had a long talk to get me back on my hooves.”
“I was the same way,” Dash admitted. “Spitfire came to me a couple days later and talked to me for hours.” She tapped her chin with a hoof, looking away in thought. “Well, it was more like hours of her insisting that we talk and me saying that nothing was wrong. Once she finally got me to open up, it was, like, fifteen minutes long.” She chuckled. “I’m still not back to my full awesomeness yet, but I’m way better than I was.”
The pegasus chuckled at their shared experience. “It seems you and I have something in common.”
Dash nodded. “Looks that way.”
“It appears we got off on the wrong hoof,” the pegasus continued. He extended his foreleg for a shake. “I’m Dialect. Theta Division linguistics expert.”
Rainbow returned the hoofshake. “Rainbow Dash. You apparently already know that.”
“Sema Four. Signals Intelligence technician,” said the unicorn, her hind legs sticking up in the air as she leaned into the top of a large black box to install the new component.
“You, uh… need some help there?” Dash asked, cocking her head at the strange sight.
“Nope!” There was a brief flash of light and a crackle of electricity, then a dull thud as Sema’s hooves landed on the floor. “Everything’s set. Time to find out just what the hay we’re dealing with.”
Dialect nodded in agreement, trotting to his console and replacing the headphones over his ears. Dash and Sema Four slowly crept up behind him, watching the screen over his shoulders. A silent minute passed. Despite the state-of-the-art headphones covering Dialect’s ears, Rainbow subconsciously quieted her breathing as she waited for the explanation she had been anticipating for days.
After a few more minutes, Dialect removed the headphones with a deep sigh. “Well, my dears, I have bad news and good news. The bad news is that the transmission has a distinct Novosibird accent. The code words they’re using may prevent us from figuring out what the buggers are talking about, but King Ivory might as well have signed his name to this signal.”
He pointed to the series of lines on the screen. “The good news, however, is that the signal is strong enough to triangulate their position. I’ll contact our colleagues in Cloudsdale; if my hunch is correct, they’re in the best geographical location to help us.” He took a step away from the console. “Sema, I’ll leave you to your… whatever it is that you do.”
Sema Four planted herself in front of the console while Dialect trotted across the room. “You were wondering why you’ve been kept in the dark, Rainbow Dash? That’s why,” he said, nodding towards the display of jagged lines. “We discovered that signal two days ago, but it was too weak to decode without the amplifier you just delivered.”
He stopped next to a crystal comm suite similar to the one Dash had seen Gilda use the week prior. “About an hour ago, there was a brief spike in broadcast power, during which I thought I heard an accent from somewhere in the Griffon Kingdom. Sema and I figured it would be better to play it safe and bring you inside, what with the rather diverse population of this area,” he continued, vaguely waving his hoof towards the surrounding buildings. “It would be far too easy for one of these ‘innocent’ griffons to be not-so-innocent.”
He brushed a strand of his dark grey mane out of his face before placing the combination microphone-earpiece on his head. “Red Maple to Douglas Fir. Come in, Douglas Fir. Over.”
After a moment of silence, the speaker crackled to life. “Douglas Fir to Red Maple. We read you. Over.”
Dialect pushed the microphone away from his mouth, leaning back to address Rainbow. “Best be getting on back to the Hub, then. You’ll probably be needed soon.”
Dash’s first instinct was to protest; she wanted to be present for the discovery of the signal’s location. After a moment’s consideration, though, she conceded that the stallion was likely correct. Not only would she need to be ready if called, but she would also need to explain her tardiness in the current mission. She was supposed to have left Fillydelphia nearly thirty minutes ago. Considering the situation, she doubted there would be any repercussions. Either way, there was no reason to waste any more time. She left the safe house as quickly as she could, taking wing for the Hub as soon as she stepped outside.
13 MAY 05 MIL-STD CAL
Rainbow’s stomach churned in a nauseating dance as she exited RAID’s secure briefing room. The discovery in Fillydelphia had planted seeds of apprehension that grew rapidly as the afternoon slipped away. She had hoped that Dialect’s assessment had been mistaken, but as activity subtly picked up in the Hub’s atrium over the course of the evening, she knew something was wrong. Though she was loath to admit it, she knew there was only one reason for the increase.
The briefing had confirmed her fears. The encoded transmission Dialect and Sema Four had detected was coming from deep within the Crystal Mountains, and it was almost certainly intended for the Griffon Kingdom. A team of Gamma Division operatives was being sent on a “flexible response” mission. They would fly north overnight to arrive at the signal’s triangulated location just before dawn to reconnoiter the source, at which point they would have several options. If it was a relay beacon, they would dismantle it and return it for analysis. If it turned out to be renegade ponies, they would be captured for trial. If it was a griffon military unit, though, they would attack in the pre-dawn light, destroying the griffons as quickly as possible, ideally before the interlopers could tell their superiors what had happened.
Rainbow Dash shook nervously at the possibility. The memory of her previous encounter with trespassing griffons, though not as raw and present as it was several days ago, still held her mind in a paralyzing vise grip whenever she recalled it. She was unsure if she was ready for a second engagement so soon after the trauma of the Manehattan Approach incident. Performing as required for another mission would take all of the discipline she had developed over the past year, and despite all her training, she had no idea if it would be enough.
She followed the platoon to which she had been temporarily attached towards the Gamma Division HQ, silently trying to calm her nerves when she heard a familiar voice call to her from the atrium.
“Rainbow Dash? Wait up a minute.”
She looked over her shoulder to see Spitfire trotting up behind her. A trickle of relief flowed into her at the sight of a friendly face. She had been a tough commander at the Wonderbolts Academy several years earlier, but as her mentor at RAID, nopony could read her better. Despite Rainbow’s brash personality, Spitfire had learned to see when the young operative’s brave face was just that.
Spitfire caught up to her just outside of the gaping tunnel entrance to Gamma’s headquarters. “You looked like you had seen a ghost all through that briefing. Something you wanna talk about?”
“I’m fine,” Dash lied.
She was met with a skeptical stare. “You’re shaking,” the Wonderbolt deadpanned.
A glance down at her hooves revealed that the yellow pegasus was correct. Rainbow’s bullheaded first instinct was to make up a quick excuse, but she held her tongue for the moment. If she had learned anything in the years since the Best Young Flyer Competition, it was to trust her friends to help her through tough times.
“I’m still… scared,” Dash admitted, hanging her head. “I keep seeing that griffon I killed just floating on the waves. No matter what I do, I keep going back to that. It’s just stuck in my head.” She locked eyes with her mentor. “I don’t know if I can do it again.”
Spitfire sighed, draping a comforting wing around her protege. “Dash… it’s never easy, getting over the first time you witness death. You never really ‘get over it’. It changes you. There’s no escaping that. You have it particularly bad. Most ponies, even RAID operatives, see a few takedowns before they have to do one themselves.
“But you’re strong. I know you are. You’ve shown that since the Best Young Flyer Competition, way back when. You think I didn’t know when you were supposed to perform? I had the list right in front of me, and I know stage fright when I see it. I don’t mean to compare performance anxiety with what you’re going through, but it shows that you’re tough enough to get past it.”
Rainbow slowly shook her head. “But what if I freeze up? What if my squad needs me to fight and I’m too much of a scaredy-filly to do anything?”
“Understandable,” the Wonderbolt replied. “You don’t want to let your fellow operatives down. I can’t offer any proof to back this up, but trust me, you won’t. Everypony thinks they will, but when push comes to shove, they find a way to stay with it when things get real.”
She was met with a doubtful glance from her protege. “You really believe that?”
“Doesn’t matter what I believe,” Spitfire countered. “Doesn’t even matter what you believe. Somepony higher ranking than either of us seems to believe it, or they would never have assigned you to this mission. Hay, they even put you on the Recon squad. That’s like a vote of confidence from the Gamma Division CO herself. Face it, filly,” she said, ruffling Dash’s mane. “You’ve got fans in high places. Ponies who should know don’t think you’ll crack.”
“Besides,” she added, “how many times have you faced monsters that threatened all of Equestria? Four? Five?”
Rainbow dug at the ground with a hoof. “I guess so…”
“You’re a lot tougher than you give yourself credit for, Dash, and knowing how fond you are of yourself, that’s saying something.”
Dash chuckled in spite of herself. “I can’t help liking myself so much. I work so hard for it.”
Her mentor gave her a pat on the back. “You see? Things will be fine. If some griffon gets in your face, just remind them who they’re dealing with.”
Smiling, Dash trotted down the tunnel, stopping after a few steps to turn around. “Hey, Spitfire?”
The Wonderbolt captain nodded. “Stay frosty.”
14 MAY 05 MIL-STD CAL
15 kilometers north of Equestrian Border
Rainbow peered over the icy ridge at the waypoint displayed on her visor, searching for any evidence of activity. She squinted, trying to see through the obscuring snowfall. The only things she could make out, though, were drifts of snow piling up against boulders on the small ledge. There was no transmitter and no evidence of a camp. If the provided coordinates were correct, Dash presumed that whomever was responsible for the mysterious signal had vanished overnight.
Despite the heavy winter gear encasing her, a sharp gust forced her head into the cover of the rocky ridge over which she had been looking. Her detachment had reached the frigid heights of the Crystal Mountians two hours ago, and the weather had been terrible since their arrival. Every blast of arctic wind relentlessly searched out the seams in her insulated armor, keeping her constantly dreading the next gust. ‘Stay frosty.’ Very funny, Spitfire.
To her right, four other operatives, all similarly insulated in white camouflage, hunkered down out of the snowstorm. The one closest to her, a sergeant who had been put in command of the small detachment, shuffled closer to be heard over the howling wind.
Dash shook her head. “Just a bunch of rocks and snow,” she shouted back. “If something was there yesterday, they must’ve run off overnight.”
The sergeant reached into his saddlebag, retrieving a bulky pair of binoculars. “Use these,” he said, hoofing them to her. “They’re enchanted to pick up heat signatures. If there’s something there, this ought to show their body heat.”
Accepting the binoculars, Dash poked her head over the ridge again. She looked through the enchanted optics, seeing a swirling mass of shades of black and dark grey as the freezing wind whistled through the ravine. As she focused on the ledge below, she was not surprised to see only cold black among the rocks and drifts. A scan of the surrounding area revealed that the only heat signatures being detected were those of the four ponies hugging the icy wall next to her.
A puff of condensation wafted through her mask as she sighed, half in resignation and half in relief. She ducked beneath the granite outcropping once again, hoofing the binoculars back to the sergeant.
“Nothing but ice and wind,” she said. “I don’t think anything’s there.”
The sergeant nodded, accepting the enchanted device. “Sounds that way, but we ought to get a closer look before we call it.” He turned to the rest of his team. “Swift Wing, Storm Chaser, you two take the binocs and get a little closer. The gale might be messing with heat sigs. Contrail, you stick with us. We’re gonna cover them if things go sideways.”
Taking to their assignments, the recon squad split up. Two pegasi took to the air, fighting against the frigid storm winds as soon as they rose above the small outcropping that had been shielding them. The remaining ponies spread out along the narrow ledge, each getting a different angle overlooking the supposed campsite. The two stallions both drew bows, each nocking an arrow. Dash unclasped the spear from her back, looking at the sergeant in confusion.
“I get how you’re planning to cover them,” she shouted, pointing at his bow, “but just what am I supposed to do? They’re a teensy bit out of my range from up here.”
“You’re supposed to be fast, aren’t you?” the recon leader replied. “If things go wrong, swoop down and make a mess. We promise not to shoot you by accident.”
Dash rolled her eyes, thankful that her tinted visor would conceal the disrespectful gesture. Nevertheless, she took her place on the ridge, peeking out at the campsite. The two operatives were on a smaller ledge about twenty meters below and in front of her, placing them about halfway between the coordinates and the rest of their squad. The only level ground between them and a sheer cliff face was the supposed campsite, forcing them to conduct their surveillance from a range that was less than ideal. She watched as they scanned the site once, twice, and a third time. They exchanged the binoculars several times, pointing towards one place or another they wanted double-checked. After a brutally cold five minutes, Dash’s crystal comm sparked to life.
“Sergeant, you’re gonna want to check this out.”
She glanced over towards the bow-wielding sergeant, who keyed his own headset. “Find something interesting?”
“We’re getting weak heat sigs from the big rocks. Not much, but they’ve all got one.”
“If it’s that weak, it’s probably background radiation that they scatter better than snow,” the sergeant replied, the disappointment in his voice clear. “Fall back to my position and prepare to move out.”
“No, sarge, it’s coming from inside the rocks.”
Dash saw him freeze for a moment. “Say again?”
“The heat signatures are coming from inside, repeat, inside the rocks. There’s something in ‘em.”
The sound of wind was the only noise for a pregnant minute. Finally, the sergeant slung his bow, shouting to address the pair of operatives to his sides. “I’m going down there to check it out. If anything pops out and takes off in a hurry, make sure it doesn’t get away.”
With that, he vaulted over the ridge, fighting against the headwind towards the two ponies ahead. Landing beside them, he took the binoculars and sighted the nearest rock. Dash saw him rub his visor with an insulated hoof, peering through the optics once again. After a minute, he returned the enchanted item to his saddlebag and waved the two operatives forward, joining them as they approached the rock nearest to their observation point. The sergeant tapped the side twice before turning to his followers and nodding.
Rainbow watched curiously as the three pegasi pushed on the boulder in unison, their hooves slipping in the snow. When they finally got purchase on the slippery surface, Dash was amazed to watch the boulder topple over, revealing a large hollow on the inside. In the hole left by the false rock, a sleeping griffon was rudely awakened by the sudden cold wind. She tore off the multitude of blankets covering her, but stopped short as the three operatives leveled their weapons at her.
The RAID operatives encircled her, leaving no escape. She glanced at the sword laying amongst her blankets, but the ponies noticed the weapon before she could act, dragging it to the cliff’s edge and tossing it over, blankets and all. Left with no other option, the griffon surrendered, allowing shackles to be placed around her legs and a restraining belt over her wings.
Satisfied that the prisoner was going nowhere, the sergeant radioed to the ponies on the ridge. “Rainbow Dash, come down here and guard this one. Contrail, keep giving us cover. I’m going to call for reinforcements.”
Dash followed the example of the three pegasi before her, jumping over the ledge and putting all her strength into pushing against the wind. It offered more resistance than she had expected, but she was able to make it to the campsite quickly enough. Remembering Spitfire’s encouragement, she gripped her spear in her fetlock, securing the counterweight in the leg plate’s dimple. The tip was leveled directly at the griffon’s throat, kissing her windblown feathers with its lethal edge.
The look on the griffon’s face echoed a confusing mix of emotions. The initial shock of being discovered had given way to fear at her own powerlessness, tempered with anger, both at herself for getting captured and at her captors for daring to meddle with her mission. Dash gave silent thanks for the mirrored visor of her arctic bodysuit, not wanting the fear in her own eyes to be seen by the citrus yellow ones staring back at her.
A second rock was overturned, eliciting a similar response from the hidden griffon. He was quicker to reach his weapon than the first griffon, though, and took a wild swing at one of his captors. The pony ducked under the slash, readying his katana to deflect the inevitable follow-up strike. He waited for a split-second, weapon in hoof, but the griffon collapsed, an arrow buried just below the neck. Dash glanced to the ridge she had recently occupied to see their archer overwatch nock another arrow to his bow.
Anticipating a reaction at the slaying of her comrade, Dash reminded the prisoner of the spear at her throat with a quick prod. She recoiled at the touch, the anger behind her eyes even more apparent. Rainbow prayed that the griffon had enough restraint to keep from making a rash decision that would require Rainbow to kill her. Assurances from Spitfire aside, she did not want to kill an unarmed opponent.
Then again, she thought, is a griffon ever really unarmed? With those claws and that beak, they’re like living, breathing weapons.
The sergeant and his team moved to the third boulder. With a grunting effort, they pushed it over, landing in the snow with a muffled thud. Underneath, there was pile of blankets, a small pillow, and no griffon. A hole in the snow leading under the edge of the rock caught their attention. If one of the griffons had escaped, there was no way the operatives could catch him in the storm.
“Contrail,” the sergeant began, “did you see anything get away?”
“Negative, sergeant, skies are clear.”
The recon leader gave rapid-fire hoof signals to his two subordinates. The three pegasi cautiously spread out, poking at drifts in an attempt to locate the last griffon. As the sergeant approached a particularly large snowbank, a large figure burst from under it. Very suddenly, he found himself staring at the tip of a crossbow bolt aimed squarely at his head.
Dash’s gasp was muffled by her mask. She kept the prisoner at the full length of her spear, constantly glancing between the scene developing to her right and the captured griffon in front of her. Swift Wing and Storm Chaser brought their weapons to bear against the threatening intruder, shouting at him incoherently over the howling wind.
In a flustered reaction to the sudden threat, the sergeant stumbled, landing on his side in the snow. The crossbow-wielding griffon did not break his aim.
“Equestrian scum!” the griffon yelled. “Meddling pigs! You picked the wrong fight! Do you really think your pathetic Royal Guard has any chance against the mighty Army of the Griffon Kingdom?”
“Contrail,” the sergeant mumbled over the crystal comm, “hold your fire. You hit him, he might clench and shoot me.”
The intruder continued, launching into a tirade. “You ponies are weak! You haven’t even succeeded here! Our mission is complete. We were to leave this very morning. You arrogant Equestrians did not even notice until too late! Our generals are most pleased with progress made here. So kill us! We will be heroes!”
“Drop the weapon and put your wings at your sides!” Storm Chaser shouted back.
The griffon was taken aback by the demand, recoiling as if insulted. “Surrender? So you can interrogate me? Make me betray my motherland?”
“This is your last chance! Put the crossbow on the ground! Now!”
His grip on the crossbow tightened, muscles in his legs tensing. He snarled at the sergeant, bellowing at the top of his lungs.
“There is no surrender for a griffon!”
Before anypony could react, he raised his crossbow and fired over the sergeant’s head. An arrow came sailing in from behind, striking the griffon in the thigh as both operatives swung their weapons at him. Dash, reacting to the apparent change in target, threw herself into the snow.
A second later, she recovered, quickly scanning the ledge. The griffon with the crossbow had been cut down, slashes and stab wounds staining his coat, feathers, and the snow around his unmoving body. Rainbow looked around for the captured female, only to find her slumped in the snow as well, a crossbow bolt buried at the base of her skull.
The sergeant lifted himself out of the snow, turning to Dash and the slain captive. He slowly walked to the dead griffon, prodding her once with his hoof. Convinced that all the intruders had been killed, he swore under his breath.
Dash thrust her spear into the snow. “What the hay was that all about?!” she screamed, her voice cracking. “He shot his own squadmate?!”
“Looks that way,” the sergeant replied, nodding sadly.
The obvious response left Dash grasping for words. She fell back on her haunches, torn between anger and confusion. “Why would he do that?”
“Dead griffons don’t answer questions.”
A silent moment passed as the operatives took in the scene around them, baffled by the fratricide they had just witnessed. The gale around them began to subside as the eastern horizon showed signs of light between the jagged peaks. With the storm dying and daylight barely an hour away, they would need to return to their Crystal Empire safe house soon or risk being spotted. The sergeant keyed his crystal comm, somberly contacting his superior.
“Recon reporting. Contact with hostile griffon force. Three EKIA. No prisoners. No friendly casualties. No sign of transmitter. Over.”
The comm line buzzed with interference for a moment before a response was heard. “Roger, Recon. Transmitter has been located about a half klick south of you. Let’s get this stuff home to the Beta techs. They’ll have a field day with it. Over.”
“Copy. Over and out.” The sergeant slung his bow once more, stretching his wings once it was secure. “Y’all heard him. Let’s move.”
The operatives took to the early dawn sky, leaving the bizarre, frustrating carnage behind.
14 MAY 05 MIL-STD CAL
A glance at the clock and some quick mental math told Rainbow that she had been awake for almost forty hours straight, nine of which she had spent in the coldest place she could imagine. It was nothing short of a miracle that she was able to stay awake in the stuffy briefing room in Section 37’s concrete depths. Gilda and Spitfire had been briefed separately, leaving Dash all alone, waiting for somepony to tell her what to think.
The clanging of metal on metal interrupted Dash’s half-awake stupor as the entrance unlocked. She spun around, watching the black metal door swing open to reveal the Commandant, unaccompanied by her normal escort of bodyguards. After a second of uncomprehending silence, Rainbow flailed her limbs wildly in an attempt to quickly leave her seat and come to attention.
“At ease, Rainbow Dash,” the Commandant said, the gentleness of her voice foreign to Rainbow. “You’ve had a tough run lately. I’m not here to chew you out.”
On a normal day, Dash would have been suspicious of such low-key proceedings with a high-ranking officer, but her exhausted mind simply took it at face value. She returned to her seat with a calm, focused energy flowing anew through her as RAID’s senior officer quietly proceeded to the front of the room.
“You’re probably wondering why I’m debriefing you in person,” the Commandant began, “so I’ll cut to the chase. In light of this morning’s mission, I’ve brought us to Response Level One, the highest readiness level RAID has. It looks like we’re in for a conflict with the Griffon Kingdom, and I want to handle as much of it as possible in-house. I’d like to prevent an all-out war, if at all possible.”
She produced a manila folder from a saddlebag, opening it on the desk in front of her. “Despite your predictable reaction to your first mission, you are a great asset to this unit. Obviously, my subordinates share my views, or you would not have been deployed this morning. You are strong, resilient, quick to adapt, and fast as Tartarus. You still make the occasional rookie mistake, but nothing so bad that your teammates can’t cover it.”
She subtly straightened her neck, standing ever so slightly taller. “For these reasons, you have been hoof-picked for special duty until further notice. It’s clear that we will be fighting in the air for the time being, and your speed has already proven its usefulness in combat.
“I’ve already briefed Captain Spitfire and Gilda, and they both think you’re ready for this. Everypony who’s worked with you has good things to say. You might not know it, Ms. Dash, but those who matter have a high opinion of you. You may yet be a fine operative.”
She ran a hoof through her mane. “I can’t say that the next while is going to be any kind of easy, nor can I promise how you’ll come out of it. But if you can stay as strong as I’ve seen you be, you’ll pull through. You think you can do that?”
Dash hesitated. “I don’t know, ma’am. I’ve been pushed hard the past week, and the only thing we’ve accomplished is killing a few griffons. If you ask me, ma’am, it seems like we’re wasting a lot of effort. I may not have paid much attention in school, but I know Equestria and the Griffon Kingdom haven’t always played nice with each other. What’s different this time? Why can’t the Royal Guard handle it?”
“Honestly?” The Commandant closed the folder emphatically. “I have no idea what they’re up to, and neither does Theta Division. King Ivory denies sending any griffons here or receiving any transmissions. I’ve told Colonel North Star to get his act together, but we don’t see eye to eye on how an intelligence organization should be run. I wish I could remove him, but he conned his way into a recommendation from Celestia herself, and I can’t just ignore that.” She grimaced. “I don’t even wanna know what he did to get it.”
“So that’s it?” Dash asked incredulously. “Just, ‘we don’t know what’s going on, but you have to be ready to go and kill at a moment’s notice’? It sounds like nopony knows what’s going on, so our first reaction is to murder every griffon who shows her tailfeathers on this side of the ocean!” She shakily rose from her seat. “If that’s the case, why don’t I go and knock Gilda over the head a few times, ma’am? I could put another notch on my spear!”
The Commandant glared at her. “First of all, Miss Dash, I am your commanding officer, and I will not be spoken to in such a manner. You may disagree with me, but you will do so respectfully and with the professional courtesies expected of an operative addressing a superior officer.”
Dash put on her best poker face, but the combination of exhaustion and anger made her compromise on a scowl. The Commandant, apparently satisfied with the minor improvement, continued.
“To speak directly to the point you’ve made, it surprises me that I would have to explain this to you. Our country is under attack, and the Element of Loyalty is asking why we need to defend it? I expected better of you, Rainbow Dash. You’ve defended Equestria many times before, each time putting your life on the line for your fellow ponies. I ask you, how is this different?”
Rainbow cocked her head at her superior’s description.“‘Under attack’, ma’am? With all due respect, you’re reminding me of a dressmaker I know from home. A couple of three-griffon teams not even crossing our borders is not an attack. It’s a problem, ma’am, one that the Guard is equipped to handle. I know it is; I’ve met the Captain before. It would take a little more than a half-dozen griffons to overwhelm his forces.” She shifted her weight, trying to shake the exhaustion plaguing her every move. “I’d say you’re milking this just a teeny bit, ma’am. I’m all for defending Equestria, but I don’t think we need to annihilate every puddlejumper who happens to look at our airspace wrong.”
“I think recent events prove that the griffons aren’t big fans of avoiding bloodshed,” the Commandant countered. “They didn’t retreat when outnumbered five to one, and one of them shot his own squadmate in the head to keep her from getting captured. That kind of behavior is not something that will back down from a fight, no matter how hopeless.
“And if that’s not proof enough,” she continued evenly, pushing the folder towards Dash, “then perhaps this will change your mind. Page seven. Cargo manifest of the Azure Sky, which left Baltimare Harbor two days ago.”
Rainbow opened the folder to the specified page, skimming the text. “All I see is a lot of raw iron and some chariot parts. Nothing out of the ordinary, ma’am.”
“The Griffon Kingdom has the biggest raw iron industry in the world,” the Commandant said. “They haven’t imported iron from us in recorded history. Why would they suddenly need two thousand tons of Equestrian iron?”
Dash closed the folder. “Alright, that’s a little weird. But... what’s the point?”
A yellow hoof retrieved the folder. “Theta thinks it’s a cover for cargo of a more, uh, sinister nature. We’re going to board the freighter tomorrow and find out what they’re hiding. They’re sailing into a building storm, which will give us cover for an approach.” She looked squarely into Rainbow’s eyes. “I know you were a weather pony before joining up. You have experience flying in storms that other operatives simply don’t have. That’s why I’m placing you on the boarding team. Unless,” she said, narrowing her gaze, “you think I’m overreacting.”
The specter of another hasty engagement haunted every scenario Dash could imagine. RAID had been moving quickly and aggressively since the intercept outside of Manehattan, and she was leary of her fellow operatives’ penchant for swiftly ending lives. She loved Equestria dearly, and there was no doubt in her mind that she could kill its enemies. The skirmishes she had experienced over the past week, though, did not convince her that the griffons were truly Equestria’s foes.
Just as she was about to voice her objection, though, the strange shipping manifest tugged at her mind. If the griffons had so much iron, why were they buying so much of it from a country across the ocean? What was worth hiding like that? Were they smuggling weapons? Spies? Technology? Something worse? Though the risk was small, there was still the possibility that the griffons were building a strategic edge right under Equestria’s nose.
A thought occurred to her. If she was on the team, she could keep things from spiraling out of control again. It was like she had told Fluttershy a thousand times - she just needed to be more assertive. She needed to suck up her fears and personally control her surroundings. It would not be easy or pleasant, but she was certain it would allow her to stop violence before it started.
“No, ma’am,” Dash said resolutely. “I’m good to go.”
The Commandant nodded. “Glad to hear it, Miss Dash. Gilda will brief you before you deploy tomorrow. Until then, get some rest. You deserve it.”
Dash saluted as her superior rose. “Yes, ma’am.”
“You’ll do alright, kid,” the Commandant said as she trotted out of the briefing room. “This ain’t an easy life. You just gotta learn not to make it harder on yourself.”
Rainbow watched silently as the heavy black door opened with the oiled squeal of metal on metal. All at once, the past forty hours caught up to her, leaving her completely drained. The short walk back to the barracks may as well have been a hundred-mile hike for how tired she felt. She rubbed her eyes with a hoof, trying to ward off sleep until she was comfortably beneath her sheets. Exiting the secure room, she allowed a yawn to pass her lips. Throughout the entire walk back, she mentally repeated one phrase, burning it into her consciousness.
The fight is mine to control.
NEXT CHAPTER: “Boarding Action”
15 MAY 05 MIL-STD CAL
Operation JAVELIN mission clock: T plus 07:33:25
540 kilometers off the Equestrian coast
Rain pelted off of Rainbow Dash’s visor, never sticking for more than a moment before being torn from the slick surface by wind. Though she was used to flying through storms, she had never flown through a tropical cyclone before. It was a downpour unlike anything she had ever experienced. Gale-force winds buffeted the formation, throwing ponies left and right as they struggled to keep a rough “V” shape. The sky constantly flickered with lightning, illuminating the raging sea below. Dash admitted a grudging respect for any sailors willing to brave such fierce weather on a ship, even one as large as a cargo vessel.
The formation flew just below the cloud ceiling, searching for the Azure Sky along its most likely route. Even in the brutal storm, it would be hard to hide an entire ship, but the crew seemed to be doing just that. By dead reckoning, the Azure Sky should have been found ten kilometers behind them, but the only thing there was more waves and rain. The ship’s captain must have known that there would be a boarding attempt, as the ship had completely veered off its original course.
A shearing gust slammed into the formation, battering it with turbulence and somehow, even heavier precipitation. Rainbow felt sorry for the two pegasi hauling the unicorn mission specialist. It would be impossible to carry a fully-grown mare long distances in fair weather, let alone through such a powerful storm. Instead, she was wearing the Towed Individual Glide Rig, a composite delta wing harnessed to her back with two steel towlines attached to the pegasi on either side of the flight leader. Riding the TIGR was bumpy, uncomfortable, and often nauseating for its passengers, but it was the only way for ground-bound ponies to deploy with RAID’s pegasi teams.
In this particular case, the unicorn was taking the unpleasant ride to magically search through the dozens of crates that would be found in the Azure Sky’s cargo hold. Though it would be possible for the Gamma Division operatives to pry open each crate individually, it would take hours to search everything, and it would leave them vulnerable to attack from the potentially hostile crew. The mission planners recognized that risk, and a second Individual Augmentee was added to the boarding party.
As the formation banked in unison, a stroke of lightning arced down from the sky, channeling its powerful energies directly into an operative on the edge of the group. The brilliant flash and immense blast stunned Rainbow Dash, leaving her blind and deaf as she fought to maintain flight. In her disoriented state, the first thoughts to pass through her mind were how glad she was that Ponyville did not have tropical weather.
The violence around her slowly came back into focus as she shook off the effects of the lightning’s fury. Her earpiece whined and popped in protest as the precisely aligned crystals at the base of her neck sparked with sympathetic energy at the proximity of the bolt. When the feedback finally faded, she could hear the unfortunate operative’s garbled transmissions as he struggled to stay airborne.
“I’m hit! May… ayday! Mayday! Los… itude, avionics… line! I’m… flat spin! Begi… overy pr… dures!”
Rainbow glanced down, catching a glimpse of the stricken pegasus. The tips of his feathers had been blackened and his weapon shorn off his armor by the bolt. He had managed to fall into a dangerous flat spin. Flying at such a low altitude, he did not have much time to pull up, and from the looks of it, he was having trouble recovering from his spin.
The flight leader’s voice came over the crystal comm. “Echo One-Four, break and recover Echo One-Six. Now!”
Another pegasus dropped out of the formation, diving towards her falling teammate. She quickly caught up to him with practiced precision despite the howling winds buffeting them. After a few harrowing seconds in a spin of her own, she righted both of them, regaining level flight barely fifty meters above the churning sea.
“One-Four to One-One. Six’s wings are injured and his armor is compromised. Weapon’s gone, too. Recommend we RTB. Over.”
“Copy that, One-Four,” the leader, Echo One-One, replied. “Assist in his return to base. If you go in the drink, Third Fleet will be on station for search and rescue. Remember to ditch your gear before being picked up. Over.”
“Roger, One-One. Echo One-Four and One-Six beginning egress from AO. Out.”
Dash grimaced at the last transmission. The objective was not even in sight and the boarding party was already down two operatives. She prayed it was not a sign of things to come and stuffed the thoughts into the back of her mind. If they were to complete the mission, each member would need to be totally focused, especially now that they were short-hooved.
The formation flew ahead for another fifteen minutes, their target nowhere to be seen. A sinking feeling settled into Rainbow’s gut as she realized the Azure Sky might have successfully evaded them. There had been no sign of the ship since they entered the storm, and the weather had only gotten worse. As it was, the boarding party was searching for a lone vessel in the middle of a tropical cyclone at night. Dash had half a mind to believe the ship had succumbed to the wind and waves, taking its suspicious cargo with it.
It was not her place to make such determinations, though, so she followed the flight leader through another bank, bringing the formation to a northeasterly heading. Fighting the growing exhaustion in her wings, Dash hoped the search would soon be called off. RAID operatives were the best in the world, but even they had limits. Making a difficult intercept was one thing, chasing ghosts in a storm was something else entirely.
The sky lit up again as tendrils of lightning angrily crawled across the clouds’ underbelly. In the light of the brilliant display, Dash caught something in the corner of her vision. The world was plunged back into darkness before she could get a good look at it, but she had been certain there was something on the ocean’s surface below them.
The anomaly had caught the flight leader’s attention as well, as her voice came over the team’s tactical frequency. “Surface contact, two o’clock. Adjust heading and altitude for recon pass.”
Angling her wings in unison with the formation around her, Dash banked right and traded altitude for speed. The operatives dipped low above the water, racing towards the phantom. Sea spray mixed with the torrential downpour, soaking the waterlogged pegasi even further. The unfortunate unicorn on the TIGR closed her eyes and prayed for her survival.
An indistinct shape appeared against the murky water. In a heartbeat, the shape had resolved into the sharp silhouette of a cargo vessel. Despite her breakneck speed, Dash could clearly read the white letters emblazoned on the ship’s stern – AZURE SKY.
“Contact identified!” One-One crowed. “Echo Team, green light! Green light to board!”
On the deck of the Azure Sky, the ship’s crew fought to stay afloat through the storm’s fury. They kept the hoods of their slickers up, preventing them from noticing the approaching pegasi until the operatives slammed onto the deck in front of them. In seconds, the ponies unfortunate enough to be on the main deck found themselves looking at the sharp end of RAID’s weapons.
Seconds later, the two pegasi attached to the TIGR released their tow lines, allowing the unicorn to glide onto the deck, flaring the delta wing at the last second to slow herself down. She rapidly unhooked from the wing, telekinetically drawing a pair of daggers.
Dash held her spear steady, barely centimeters from the surprised face of a green-coated mare.
“Don’t try anything funny,” she warned, staring directly into the crewpony’s eyes. “I guarantee I’m faster than you.”
To Dash’s right, a nearby hatch on the ship’s island flung open, revealing a grizzled zebra stallion in a tattered yellow raincoat. The sight of his fellow crewpony being held at spearpoint stunned him for a moment, but only just. He bellowed a ferocious war cry, lunging at Dash without regard for consequence.
Rainbow deftly leapt out of the way, rewarding the zebra with a vicious kick to his side as he passed. The impact knocked him off his hooves, sending him sliding across the deck and into the unforgiving metal corner of a shipping crate.
Seizing the opportunity, the green mare launched into her own assault. She, too, threw herself at Dash. The sailor collided headfirst with Dash’s hindquarters, toppling the lightweight pegasus. She slammed her hooves into the deck, trying to crush Dash’s head against the metal surface.
Dash rolled out of the way, quickly bringing her weapon to bear. Still on her side, she jabbed her spear forward, drawing a clean incision across the mare’s left side. She followed with a second strike to the left foreleg. The sailor cried out in pain, falling to her knees with a grimace.
Struggling on the slippery deck, Dash managed to stand up again just as the green crewpony bit onto a discarded length of chain. She swung the improvised weapon wildly. Rainbow ducked the first two strikes, holding out her spear to deflect the third. The chain coiled around the spear’s shaft as it hit. She snapped the spear back, nearly pulling the sailor’s teeth from her mouth. Before the chain could hit the deck, Rainbow dealt her attacker a powerful cross with her free foreleg, sending the mare down for good.
Behind them, the zebra stallion groaned as he lifted himself to his hooves. He inhaled raggedly, broken ribs making his breaths short and painful. The adrenaline coursing through his veins was the only thing keeping him conscious as he hobbled towards Rainbow. Hearing his approach, Dash only needed to flick his injured torso with her spear’s broadside to overwhelm him with pain. The stallion crumpled instantly.
A third sailor, a mule, appeared from behind a shipping crate, brandishing a heavy club in his mouth. Dash prepared to bring the confrontation to a swift end when an authoritative voice rang out from above.
“Stand down, sailors!”
Dash looked up to see the windows on the ship’s bridge lit up, revealing a zebra mare standing before a microphone. She surveyed the scene below. From her vantage point, she could see the same confrontation repeating itself all over the ship. Her sailors, though hardy and tough, were no match for the highly skilled boarders.
“Who commands this unprovoked attack?”
The flight leader gave a wounded sailor one last kick to keep him down before flying to the bridge, alighting on the catwalk in front of the windows.
“Interesting navigational choices, Captain,” she responded over the crystal comm. “Running dark while sailing through a storm isn’t a technique I’m familiar with.”
The captain snarled angrily. “Get off my ship before I call the authorities! Piracy will not stand in this day and age!”
Unperturbed, the boarding party’s leader turned to the unicorn and nodded. The windows glowed with a magical aura for a second before shattering into millions of tiny shards, allowing the lead operative to jump through and grab the stunned captain. None too gently, the captain was dropped to the main deck. RAID operatives quickly surrounded her prone form.
“Let me tell you how this is going to work,” the Echo One-One shouted over the wind. “We’re going to search your ship, and you’re going to stay out of our way. If you or one of your crew so much as sneezes at us, we’re sending them into the drink. Is that clear?”
The shock on the zebra captain’s face slowly faded into smoldering anger. “Very well,” she groaned. “Search every container, if you must. It will take you days, and the Equestrian Royal Navy will be prowling these waters as soon as the storm passes. You won’t get away with this.”
With a smirk, the leader nodded to her subordinates, who sheathed their weapons and gathered around the unicorn. She glanced down at the dazed zebra. “Yeah, I’m not particularly worried about the Navy interfering here.”
She trotted to the IA unicorn, mindful of the ship’s rocking in the swells, leaving Rainbow to guard the captain. After a brief conversation, the unicorn’s horn glowed blue as she approached one of the cargo containers. She slowly walked along its edge, holding her horn close to its metal sides. Two pegasi operatives stayed close by her side, wary for any threat from the crew.
Dash watched the ship’s captain carefully, holding the tip of her spear not quite against the zebra’s throat. Stereotypical zebra stoicism had returned to the Captain’s demeanor, though, leaving an unreadable expression on her face. The lack of a visible response left Dash nervous. She had expected more resistance, both from the crew and the Captain. Aside from the initial skirmish, everything had gone very smoothly for the operatives. It seemed as though they would be able to search the containers and be on their way in a minimal timeframe.
As much as Rainbow wanted to believe nothing would go wrong, she could not shake the feeling that something was wrong. Shock and awe would certainly minimize resistance from an unprepared opponent, but it would not completely knock them out. During training, her instructors had repeatedly drilled the importance of listening to gut instinct. “If something doesn’t feel right, tell somepony – it probably isn’t.”
She tapped the zebra with the flat of her spearhead. “Hey, you know what would be really awesome?” she asked rhetorically. “If you just stood there nice and still and didn’t make me kill you. I’d really prefer to, y’know… not kill you.”
Waving one of her fellow operatives over to take her place, Dash clipped her spear onto her back. “So please don’t do anything stupid while I’m gone.”
She stepped away from the subdued captain, fighting the wind and rain as she made her way across the deck towards the boarding party’s leader. She found the lead operative walking alongside the unicorn, watching as the Individual Augmentee slowly scanned the length of another cargo container for suspicious items. Dash squeezed through the guarding ring of pegasi and approached the leader, who cocked her head at the sight of her second IA.
“I thought I told you to keep an eye on the Captain,” she shouted over the storm. “What’re you doing over here?”
“Something doesn’t feel right, ma’am,” Dash yelled in reply. “This whole operation is going too well. There’s gotta be a catch.”
One-One grimaced uneasily. “I was hoping I was the only one who thought something was off,” she said. “That zebra didn’t even put up a fight, which seemed a bit odd.”
Dash nodded in agreement. “There’s no way this is just another shipment, ma’am. They’re hiding something from us, and the captain of this rust bucket knows what and where it is.”
“Probably, but she’ll continue to deny it until we find evidence. Until then, we’ve just got to keep her from running or fighting back. That’s why I had you guarding her.” She eyed Dash with a dangerous glance. “You did leave somepony guarding her, right?”
“Of course, ma’am,” Rainbow replied in exasperation. “I’m not a complete idiot.”
One-One’s response was cut short by a surprised exclamation from the unicorn.
“Whoa! Hey, there’s something hot in this one,” she shouted, pointing at the container with her hoof.
Waving several of her operatives over, the leader trotted to the container’s heavy door. Like the rest of the ship’s cargo, it was held secure by a series of oversized padlocks. “Where’s our bolt cutter? Somepony get this thing unlocked!”
A large stallion removed the requested tool from his armor, grunting as he put all of his strength into cutting through the hardened steel. The first lock resisted for a few seconds before failing under the immense pressure of the bolt cutter’s jaws. With a loud crack, the metal sheared in two, hanging limply from the door.
The second and third locks met similar fates, each clanging to the deck as they were forcefully removed from the door. The leader gestured to a pair of operatives who quickly opened the doors, weapons drawn.
Inside, stacks of wooden crates formed an aisle down the center of the container, allowing the operatives to access every one without completely unloading it. The flight leader returned her katana to its sheath on her back, cautiously entering the container. She was closely followed by the unicorn, who continued to magically search for contraband.
One-One pushed on the lid of a crate and found it to be securely nailed in place. She unclipped a pry bar from her armor, wedging it underneath the lid and pulling down with all her weight. Nails creaked against wood in protest before slipping out entirely. A blue aura surrounded it as the unicorn levitated it out of the way, revealing the contents within.
“Well,” the leader remarked flatly, “I guess it’s technically iron.”
Within a specially made wooden rack, a dozen longswords packed the inside of the crate, their polished surfaces glinting as lightning flashed outside. One-One removed a specimen, examining the weapon’s craftsponyship with a trained eye. A curious frown deepened on her face. Facts were not adding up.
“Something ain’t right here,” she mumbled. Trotting outside, she approached Rainbow Dash, holding the sword for her to examine.
“You and I seem to be on the same wavelength today,” One-One began. “Maybe you’ll share my suspicions here. You see this?” She pointed to the center of the sword’s blade. “No blood groove. And here, at the hilt. There’s way too much play in the tang. This is low-quality work.”
Dash cocked her head. “Somepony in the Griffon Kingdon buying in bulk? Saving money on lousy weapons?”
The flight leader nodded. “My suspicion as well. I’d bet my wings that container is full of dirt-cheap discount weapons, all headed for the griffons.” She looked over her shoulder at the zebra mare and her guard. “Bring the Captain over here!”
A quick prod from the operative’s weapon was all it took to get the Captain moving. She slowly trudged across the deck, glaring daggers at the boarding party. One-One returned the favor.
“Well, Captain,” the leader spat, “I think I’ve found a rather disturbing discrepancy aboard your vessel. Your cargo manifest lists this crate as containing raw iron, but I found about sixty crates of these in there!” She held the sword at eye level, barely centimeters from the zebra’s face. “Care to explain?”
A tense silence fell on the group. Dash nervously gripped her spear. Her earlier feeling of unease had only been compounded by the discovery of the weapons.
The Captain gently brushed the sword aside. “It is true, that container is filled with crates of weapons. However, if you had bothered to read the manifest description, you would have noticed that these weapons are all decommissioned and scheduled for recycling at the Mosclaw Ironworks foundry. That is why they are listed as raw iron; it is all they are good for.”
To anypony else, it would have appeared that One-One’s expression did not change at the Captain’s revelation. Dash, however, had gone through the exact same rigorous indoctrination of discipline. She noticed the infinitesimally brief twitch on the leader’s face that accompanied the first gut-wrenching moments of self-doubt. A single involuntary tic in her eye, a slight tilt of the ear. Fortunately, the very training that kept One-One from betraying her loss of confidence also told her to stick to her gut instinct when things became unclear.
“Scrap metal, huh? I might buy that. Of course, you’ll probably have the invoice from the foundry on hoof, right? Because without it, that would be moving weapons across borders without a permit. Decommissioned or not, that’s smuggling.”
A sly smile crept onto her face. “I know a thing or two about smuggling, y’know. My Pop used to make his living as a rumrunner. Gave the Royal Guard a real headache for near a dozen years bootleggin’ outta Dodge City. He always used to say that there ain’t many rules when it comes to smuggling, but the biggest rule is to make sure the paperwork on all your legit cargo was pristine. Don’t wanna give snooping Customs ponies a reason to look any deeper, see?”
Before One-One could continue her anecdote, the zebra produced a small scroll from her saddlebag. “It is here, if you wish to read it. It accounts for every weapon in that container.”
The flight leader snatched the scroll. She read its entire length, her eyes widening in disbelief. Upon reaching the end, she shook her head, amazed. “I’m… not really sure what to say. It all checks out.”
“An apology would be a fine start,” the Captain replied acidly.
One-One began to stutter a hasty apology, but she was cut off by a surprised yelp echoing from the container.
“Gah! What in Tartarus?! Get outta here! Move!”
Three operatives darted out of the container in a near panic. The unicorn skidded out last, bolting towards the leader. “Ma’am! The thing I sensed in there? It’s an entire crate of arcane demolition charges, and it’s rigged to blow!”
All three ponies looked in horror towards the zebra, who was calm as ever. She leaned her muzzle into her saddlebag. “I have paperwork for those, too…”
The world slowed to a crawl as Dash watched the Captain produce a small black box. Without thinking, she swung her spear in a tight arc, knocking the device from the zebra’s mouth. It flew through the air, revealing a single switch beneath a safety cover.
At that moment, everything happened at once. The crew, who had been passive since the initial skirmish, suddenly threw themselves at the operatives once again. Attacking sailors converged on the small group clustered around the Captain, who fell to the deck from Dash’s strike. The detonator sailed towards the ship’s stern, sliding across the slick metal deckplates.
“Get the detonator!” One-One shouted, fending off a pair of attacking crewponies.
The unicorn operative concentrated on the small object, her horn glowing blue with magic. Before she could retrieve the device, though, a screaming sailor viciously tackled her from behind. The pair slipped and fell, grappling with each other in a deadly embrace as both pressed for an advantage. A particularly large swell tipped the deck precariously, sending both ponies sliding into the rows of containers.
Dash took to the air, bolting towards the detonator. It skittered erratically across the deck, bouncing and deflecting off of every bump and misaligned plate. Just as she made a desperate grab for it, a powerful gust of wind slammed her into a container, sending shock waves of pain through her wings with a sickening pop. Her spear came loose, clattering to the deck several meters away.
Crawling back to her hooves, she looked up just in time to see the zebra stallion she had soundly beaten earlier had gotten back on his hooves as well, giving chase to the detonator with all the speed his injured legs could muster. He could barely trot, but he was dangerously close to the device. It would be mere seconds before he retrieved it. There was no doubt in Rainbow’s mind that he was crazed enough to blow up the ship and everypony on it, himself included.
Stuffing the agony in her wings to the back of her mind, she sprinted after the wounded sailor, not caring that she lacked a weapon. With all her speed, she bashed her skull into his hindquarters, knocking the zebra onto his face. Before he could react, Dash was on his back, mercilessly and repeatedly driving her hooves into his skull. He tried to roll over her, but all he could manage was to slip onto his side before a vicious hoof to his jaw ended his resistance. He slumped to the deck, unconscious and bloodied.
Not pausing to consider the brutal act of violence she had just committed, Dash immediately looked up, scanning everywhere for any sign of the detonator. All around her, fellow operatives were fighting for their lives against the crew. Even though they were all highly trained warriors, the crew had them badly outnumbered, and signs of fatigue were beginning to show.
Adrenaline coursed through her veins. Conflicting objectives battled for control of her concentration. Should she help her fellow operatives? Was finding the detonator more important? If the flight was defeated in combat, they would almost certainly be executed and thrown into the ocean. If the sailors got to the detonator first, though, the whole engagement was moot. With a shout of pain and fury, Dash ran between the containers, desperately searching for the tiny black box.
Brilliant flashes of lightning lit the deck in disorienting strobes, throwing off Rainbow’s vision. Every time she thought she saw the detonator, the light showed it to be an odd shadow or a bit of detritus that had accumulated on the deck. She frantically darted between containers, avoiding the fights raging around her as her fellow operatives fought bravely against the savage crew.
She rounded a corner in time to see the stallion who had cut the locks use the same bolt cutter to knock one of the sailors over the ship’s lifeline, sending the unfortunate pony flailing into the black water with a single mighty swing. He dropped the heavy tool and returned to all fours, his body heaving as he panted from exertion.
Rainbow ran up to him, stabilizing his wobbly legs. “Are you okay?” she shouted over the howling wind.
The stallion nodded, licking his lips and wincing. “I’m fine! Just a couple of – nngh – scrapes here and there,” he grunted. “I need to find my wingpony. We got separated in the chaos.”
With that, he limped into the stacks. Dash considered following, but something unusual caught the corner of her eye. A mule was floating through the air, encapsulated in a glowing field of blue that rendered his wild struggles useless. He hovered over the water for a brief moment before the blue glow vanished, sending him into the sea with a final terrified bray.
Rainbow braced herself against the ship’s rocking and made her way aft along the main deck. After a slippery struggle against the metal slat floor, she found the flight’s second Individual Augmentee barely conscious, slumped pathetically against a container in a diluted puddle of red. Magical depletion, physical exertion, and wounds from combat had rendered the young unicorn nearly comatose. Recalling her combat first aid training, she checked for a pulse. She found a heartbeat, but it was weak and erratic. The mare’s wounds had already inflicted a heavy toll. Lacking any kind of medical equipment, Dash did the only thing that came to mind.
“Hey! Hey! Wake up! Don’t die on me here!” she shouted, her voice cracking. She shook the unicorn gently, taking care to avoid the crisscrossing slash wounds that had cut through the light armor.
With a groan, the unicorn stirred in Dash’s hooves. “Unngh… help…”
“I’m here! I’m not leaving!” Rainbow frantically looked around for anything that could be used to bandage the bleeding operative. All she could see was deckplate, metal containers, and ponies locked in mortal combat. She gritted her teeth, unwilling to accept that there was nothing she could do.
Taking a last glance around, a small object caught her eye. It had wedged itself between two containers, no longer skipping across the deck. Dash could hardly believe her eyes. It was the right size, the right shape…
“I gotta go, but I’ll be right back! I won’t leave you here!” she yelled over the storm. The wounded unicorn nodded her acknowledgement, wincing in pain.
Dash scrambled to the detonator, sliding to a stop on the slippery deck. It was tightly jammed between the containers, so much so that Dash was completely unable to budge it. She gripped it with her hooves, pulled with her teeth, and finally kicked it in frustration. “No! You are not just gonna stay there! Come out!”
She was taken aback by a blue aura that had formed around the device. Glancing back at the unicorn, she could see her teammate’s horn alight with the same arcane field. New determination welled up inside of her. She clamped her jaw onto the black box and pulled with all of her strength. It stayed put for a second, finally squealing in protest against the containers’ metal walls as it was pried out from between them. With a final powerful tug, Dash stumbled backwards and slipped on the deck. Clenched tightly in her jaw, marred with streaks of orange and yellow paint from being stuck in between the containers, was the Captain’s detonator.
With a triumphant cry, she returned to the unicorn’s side, activating her crystal comm. “This is Echo One-Eight! Emergency broadcast - all Echo Team members clear the area! Repeat, all Echo Team members, retreat to safe distance!”
“One-One here. What in Tartarus are you talking about, Eight?”
“I have the detonator! Get everypony off the ship!” Dash shouted.
“What?! Wait! The team isn’t clear yet!”
Dash propped the injured mare up on her shoulders, pinning the detonator to the deck with a hoof. She put her mouth directly next to the unicorn’s ear. “If you’ve got anything left in you, grab the detonator with your magic and let’s get off this ship!”
Weakly nodding, the unicorn’s horn lit up with a dim blue glow, grabbing the black box from underneath Dash’s hoof. She levitated it to her mouth, biting down on its metal frame.
Satisfied the detonator was secure, Dash returned to the comm. “We don’t have time! Get off the ship right now!”
“Luna save us… Everypony off the ship! Now! Disengage and get as far away as you can!”
Rainbow shuffled forward, assisting the mare’s limp with every step. “Come on! Don’t give up on me! I’m gonna get you outta here! Just keep moving!”
The pair inched towards the edge of the deck, making excruciatingly slow progress. In the back of her mind, Dash was aware that the retreat of her squad would leave the attacking sailors with only one target: her. She fought the urge to drag the unicorn across the deck and take off, fearful of exacerbating the wounds already endangering the mare’s life.
Her fears were confirmed when a burly red stallion appeared from between the stacks and spotted the mares limping away.
“There they are! Get ‘em!”
Faced with no other option, Dash wrapped her legs around the unicorn’s wounded torso and took to the sky, rapidly leaving the ship behind. A momentary sense of relief was overwhelmed by a wave of blinding pain from her wings. She had never experienced such overpowering agony in all her life. Even the paralyzing pain that followed the Wonderbolts’ evaluation paled in comparison. Her wings went limp, flatly refusing to keep her airborne. Both ponies plummeted into the inky water.
Below the water, the world was eerily calm. There was no sound, save for her own heartbeat. The unicorn next to her slowly gyrated in weightlessness. Dash wrapped a foreleg around her teammate, rapidly kicking with her hind legs to bring them back to the surface. The water dragged on her wings, sending screaming jolts of agony up her spine.
She broke the surface with a pained howl. The fight on board the ship had done more damage than she had realized, almost completely hidden by adrenaline. Taking to the air had been too much, though, overpowering the natural painkillers that had flooded her system. Even when floating limp in the water, her wings throbbed from an unknown injury.
Dash was able to think past the pain just long enough to notice crewponies lined up on the deck of the ship, each one frantically tying knots onto something. Nopony was headed for the lifeboats, which were barely steps away. She squinted into the rain, trying to discern the purpose of the curious activity.
A bolt of lighting brightly lit up the world. Dash gasped in horror as she finally saw what was happening. Every sailor on deck had a bow, and, secured to their arrows with string and twine, were the unmistakable green cylinders of arcane demolition charges.
Rainbow could only watch helplessly as the would-be archers drew back on their bows. With the power of an arcane charge attached, they would barely need to put their shots near her to score a fatal blow. Unable to move, she closed her eyes and waited for the hail of death.
The first thing she felt was a tremendous wall of heat, followed by a blinding yellow-orange flash and a blast of noise louder than she had ever imagined possible. Her hearing was reduced to a high-pitched ring. It felt like her eyes and coat were on fire. She could no longer feel the water around her.
Dash counted the beats of her heart. One… two… three… She was surprised that there was anything to count. Though she had never given the idea much thought, she had never considered that the afterlife would include something as tangible as a heartbeat. The only conclusion was that she must have somehow survived.
Opening her eyes again, she gazed in awe at the flaming hulk in front of her. The ship had been reduced to ribbons, shards of broken metal and wood littering the water. Flames danced on the water, casting a hellish glow over the wreckage as they mocked the rain’s attempts to extinguish them. There was no sign of the sailors who had, not a moment before, been ready to end Rainbow Dash once and for all.
To her side, the injured unicorn coughed and sputtered as she fought to stay above the waves. In her hooves, Dash saw the detonator, safety cover removed and switch thrown. Meeting Dash’s eyes with a weak smile, the unicorn tossed the black metal box aside. Rainbow returned the smile, wrapping a protective foreleg around the exhausted mare.
Knowing that neither of them would be able to move under their own power, Dash pulled a small cylindrical object from the armor on her belly. She struck it against a hoof several times, igniting a bright blue flame. She held the flare high. Her teammates would surely see the brightly contrasting signal among the flaming remains of the Azure Sky.
Just as she hoped, the silhouetted figure of an Echo Team pegasus flew overhead just minutes later, followed by the rest of the team. One of them dropped a self-inflating life raft, unfolding with a loud hiss. A pair of operatives assisted the Individual Augmentees as they climbed onto the raft. Finally safe, both Dash and the unicorn passed out barely seconds after making it aboard.
May 17th, 1005 New Solar Calendar
“You are the craziest pony I’ve ever met.”
Gilda strode through the curtain surrounding Rainbow’s hospital bed with an incredulous smirk on her face. She sat on the cold tile, shaking her head at her assigned operative. “You must be legally insane or something, because only somepony with a death wish would detonate those charges as close as you did.”
Dash shifted slightly on the mattress, careful to avoid putting any weight on her wing muscles. “For your information, G, I’m not the one who hit the detonator. It was the nutcase I dragged off the ship.” She laughed half-heartedly. “You want insane? Anypony who rides one of those deathtrap glider things fits the bill.”
“Yeah, I’ve seen those in action a few times,” Gilda replied with a grimace. “They make flying through a thundercloud look like skating on greased ice. And this crazed filly rode the TIGR through a hurricane?”
“Tropical storm,” Dash corrected.
Gilda waved a claw dismissively. “Yeah, there’s such a huge difference, especially when you’re flying on a flimsy piece of junk like the TIGR. I’m surprised it didn’t come apart the second you could see the storm.”
“Heh. No kidding.”
“But still,” Gilda continued, “you’re absolutely crazy. Look at what you did to yourself.” She picked the chart off of Dash’s bed, reading off the doctors’ report. “Dislocations in both wings. Contusion on the left flank. Hairline fracture in the right shoulder. Multiple contusions to the back and face…” Gilda peered over the clipboard. “Well, that last one might be an improvement.”
Dash scowled wordlessly.
“I think I’ve made my point, though,” Gilda continued, replacing the clipboard on the bed’s railing. “You’re nuts.”
“I did what I had to,” Rainbow mumbled into her water glass. She took a long drink, grimacing as she finished the last of the cold liquid.
“Nasty water here?” Gilda asked with a raised eyebrow.
Dash shook her head, sticking out her tongue in disgust. “Water and ice… I’ve been around both of those way too much over the past few days. Last thing I wanna do is put them in my body.”
“Speaking of water,” the griffon began, “it looks like your little stunt in the storm the other day has been making big waves here, pun absolutely intended. All these ponies are running around like chickens with their heads cut off. Just some old, beat-up swords would have been bad enough, but finding those charges really perked some ears.”
“They were ready to take the coward’s way out,” Rainbow replied acidly. “Nothing to get your feathers ruffled over.”
Gilda sighed. “That’s not the point. The fact that they were even able to get those things means that some jerk in the Griffon Kingdom has very good connections here. Not to mention that anyone smuggling that much heavy ordnance is, well, bad for us. If you hadn’t caught the Azure Sky, they would have offloaded those charges in a Griffon Kingdom port, bound for who-knows-where.”
She quickly stood up, peeking out of the curtains to make sure they were alone. Satisfied that the pair were the only ones around, she returned to Dash’s side, continuing her explanation in a conspiratorial whisper. “It’s got the senior brass ducking for cover. Some ponies are even talking about war with the Griffon Kingdom.”
Smirking she returned to her full height. “I hope it happens. Give me a chance to make them regret kicking my family out. Tear some stuff up for Equestria, y’know what I’m saying?”
Dash gave her a half-hearted nod, pretending to be very absorbed in her bandages. The thought of more violence grated against her consciousness.
“Well,” Gilda continued, patting her friend’s shoulder with a claw, “I’ll get my tailfeathers outta here and let you get some rest. I’ve had you removed from the rosters of all scheduled ops for the next month, so you’ve got some time to recover. I came here mostly to tell you that.
“Anyway, the docs should fix you up real nice. If they don’t, well…” she chuckled dryly, “I guess I’ll have to find some other pony crazy enough to take your spot.”
She turned and exited without another word, leaving Dash alone once again. A month of no missions would be a welcome break, especially after how drained the last three deployments had left her. Even after twenty-four consecutive hours of bed rest, she was still exhausted to the point where she could barely keep her eyes open for more than fifteen minutes at a time.
The doctors had explained her prognosis in detail. In order to get back into fighting shape, she would need to stay off her wings for at least two weeks, followed by two more weeks of progressively more strenuous physical therapy. As much as she hated the idea of being effectively grounded for four weeks, she had no choice in the matter. Until the completion of her treatment, she had been transferred to Epsilon Division, RAID’s medical department, and their nurses made Ponyville General look like a kindergarten classroom. Rainbow Dash would be following the regimen whether she liked it or not.
The first few days, though, were strict bed rest. She would have resisted such a prescription, but she lacked the energy to do most anything but lie down and pass out. When she was awake, though, her mind was churning with doubt.
What did I do wrong? I know something went bad, but I can’t figure out what!
You know what went wrong, a resolute voice countered from a remote corner of her mind. You found the contraband and the Captain tried to blow you up.
I could have stopped it.
The charges were rigged beforehand, it continued.
I could have searched the Captain’s bags.
You weren’t ordered to search them.
It’s my responsibility to protect the members of my team. There is no excuse for putting them in danger like that.
‘Putting them in danger like that’? How did you make this your fault? The team was carrying out its mission, and they were doing it so well that the only option the zebra was left with was to take everypony down with her.
That can’t be true. Nopony would blow themselves up over a few crates of swords and charges.
Welcome to your new life, Rainbow Dash! There are ponies out there who don’t play by civilized rules. You got your first real taste of that recently. Remember the griffon who shot his squadmate to keep her from getting captured? This is the face of the world you never saw back in Ponyville.
But they didn’t accomplish anything. Even if they had blown up all of us, they wouldn’t have gained anything from it.
You wouldn’t have been able to tell anypony about the weapons. Then whoever is behind all this gets to keep working completely unbeknownst to us. Whatever they’re working towards, the crew of that ship believed in it so much that they volunteered their lives to protect it. Your only mistake, besides underestimating them, would be to give anything less.
I’m in this one hundred and twenty percent. That doesn’t mean that I need to kill everyone who doesn’t like Equestria. Capturing them would have accomplished so much more. We could have questioned them for information, searched the rest of the ship…
Yes, you could have. But they chose not to surrender. When that happens, you aren’t left with many options. You saw the explosion. That should not leave any ambiguity about their intentions. Maybe you aren’t as committed as you think.
My loyalty is above question! For the love of Celestia, I’m the Element of Loyalty! If somepony wants to pick a fight with Equestria, then they’ll have to get through me!
We’ll see about that. Why didn’t you just fly away with the detonator as soon as you got it? You risked all the intelligence you gathered for the sake of your team. Isn’t Equestria more important than a few operatives?
I still got away. We all did. I even saved that injured unicorn. If I hadn’t stopped to help her, I wouldn’t have found the detonator. Even if I had found it, I would never have been able to pry it out alone. Looking out for my squadmates led to a successful mission.
True, but what if the enemy is faster next time? What if the Captain had a backup? What if there had been a manual detonator on the charges? What if they were set to a timer? All these things would have ended the whole operation in failure. You need to get your priorities straight before you deploy again. Next time, you might not get so lucky.
If I can complete the mission and keep my team alive, I’m going to take that option. Just because the bad guys sacrifice themselves needlessly doesn’t mean we have to.
A noble goal, to be sure, but you’re doubling down on your own skill and luck. Are you willing to accept the loss when your bet doesn’t play out?
Dash lay back on her pillow, unable to respond. The thought of both failing a mission and losing her entire team was too much to think about in her state. She closed her eyes, trying to force the idea from her mind. Arguing with herself had sapped the remainder of her energy, and she rolled onto her side, drifting off to sleep once again.
NEXT CHAPTER: “The Ponies With Green Faces”
June 10th, 1005 New Solar Calendar
Rainbow Dash hovered in a triumphant pose after completing the loop, shouting her victory to nopony in particular.
“Yes! Not even a little twinge that time!”
She floated towards the ground in a lazy helix, relishing her return to the sky after such a long absence. Her first flight after being injured had been several days ago, but the Chi Division doctors had restricted her to the most basic of aerial maneuvers. Today was the first time she had pushed herself since taking back to her wings. If the doctors were satisfied with her recovery, she could begin her workouts in earnest.
Upon reaching the ground, she folded her wings to her side a half-meter above the dirt, landing on all four legs with her head held high. A semicircle of doctors scribbled on their clipboards with levitating pens, barely noticing the patient in front of them.
“How about that, huh? No pain, no problem! I’m totally ready to go back,” she chirped excitedly.
“As much as you’d like to think so,” a yellow stallion replied with the tone of a doctor who was used to dealing with stubborn patients, “we still have the final word on that.”
“Your progress has been good, but you aren’t out of the woods just yet,” another doctor added.
“Returning to your standard physical training regimen could still injure you further,” a third chimed in.
Dash rolled her eyes. “Ah, what do you eggheads know?” She put her weight on her wings again, hovering around the lab-coated ponies while pantomiming a backstroke.
“Mmm, yes, what could doctors know about the equine body?” the stallion grumbled into his notes.
“I can forgive you all for thinking it might take me awhile to heal,” Rainbow continued in her most patronizing voice. “Not everypony is as fast as the Rainbow Dash, after all. I fly fast. I think fast. It only makes sense that I would heal fast!”
“Ms. Dash, if you do not give your wings a rest, I will be forced to make tasteless ‘fast’ jokes at your expense,” the yellow doctor replied. “You may not believe me, but I have a very good sense of humor. My fellow physicians and I will have quite a laugh at them.”
Rainbow stared into the sky in confusion for a moment as she processed the stallion’s warning. “How could you make jokes about… hey!” She angrily planted her hooves on the ground, ready to stand up for herself. “You wanna reconsider those jokes, pal?”
“Take a note, fillies and gentlecolts,” the stallion said, unperturbed by the insulted pegasus before him. “There is more than one way to get a patient to follow your orders. Finding and using alternate methods is what separates a merely ‘good’ doctor from a first-rate practitioner.”
Dash scowled at the group of unicorns, who were suppressing laughter at their boss’s tactics. “Oh, ha ha. Real funny.”
The yellow doctor flashed a toothy grin. “Told you I have a good sense of humor.”
“Yeah, well, don’t ask me what I think of it, ‘cause you won’t like what I have to say.”
“I hadn’t planned on it,” the doctor replied. “To shift focus back to more important topics, it appears that your recovery is nearly complete. Note that I say nearly complete, Ms. Dash. There is still potential to reinjure yourself if you don’t take it easy for the next week or so.”
“Yeah, sure thing,” Rainbow said with a dismissive wave of her hoof. “So I’m good to go?”
The doctor rubbed his temple with a hoof. “I know I’m going to regret this, but… yes, you’re cleared to resume your normal duties.”
“Aw yes!” She took to the air with a celebrative corkscrew. “Finally! If I had to spend another day in physical therapy, I’d have lost my mind!”
“I’m pretty sure the doctor just told you to take it easy,” a familiar voice intoned. Dash spun around in midair to face Spitfire, who was still dressed in her Wonderbolts flight suit. Despite the rough treatment it had received on the show circuit over the past few weeks, it was still in pristine condition. Its owner looked up at Rainbow expectantly, tapping a hoof impatiently.
“Ah, gimme a break, Spitfire,” Rainbow replied casually. “It was just a little spin. Nothing crazy.”
“I don’t care if you were just riding an updraft. If the docs tell you to take it easy, you listen to them,” the Wonderbolt retorted.
Dash rolled her eyes. “Oh, come on,” she whined. “I’ve got plenty of time to recover. It’s not like I’m scheduled to…”
She trailed off as a knowing grin spread across her mentor’s face. A brief moment of confusion was followed by wide-eyed anticipation. “Really? What’s going on?”
Spitfire nodded towards the hospital’s entrance. “Go get your stuff. You’re checking out. I’ll fill you in with the basics on the flight back to the Hub.”
10 JUN 05 MIL-STD CAL
“Attention on deck!”
Dash joined the dozen other operatives in the room in the acknowledgement of their superior’s arrival. As it happened, she was not facing the door when she snapped to attention, delaying her identification of the exact identity of the commanding officer of the operation. Two years ago, she would have simply glanced to her side to get a brief glimpse, but the discipline instilled by her training kept her head still, knowing that she would soon be released from the rigid posture.
The call had been made by a mare she recognized from training, an expert in stealth and infiltration. It was the first time she had seen any of her instructors since graduation. Exactly what it meant was a mystery to her, but she wanted to believe it was a reflection of her unique talent and a sign of moving up in the loosely defined hierarchy of field operatives. There was an unspoken belief that all RAID operators were not created equal and that ultra-elite squads existed in the darkest corners of RAID’s many divisions.
“At ease,” a stallion’s voice commanded.
Dash remained locked at attention for a moment longer. She recognized the voice. It reminded her of a painful debrief in the room where her life had taken a new direction. It had been much less confident then, withering under the condescending assault of the Commandant’s angry tirade. Shadow and darkness had fittingly concealed the speaker, whose line of work kept him sequestered in the depths of secrecy. A primitive, instinctual part of her psyche distrusted everything the voice had to say.
Rainbow tracked the stallion as he made his way to the front of the room. Her gut twisted itself in knots as her eyes confirmed what her ears had suspected. The next mission was a Theta Division operation, and it fell under the command of Colonel North Star.
“Good afternoon, operatives,” he began in a businesslike tone, retrieving a stack of notes from his saddlebag and placing them on the podium. “You’ve all been selected for this operation because you each offer a unique skill that can’t be found elsewhere. Recon, infiltration, communications, speed, evasion… You all fit into the picture somehow. We’ve got a lot to cover, so let’s get right to it.”
Dash stared at the Theta Division commander in disbelief. It was his fault — all of it, him. He was the reason her training flight had been scrubbed to defend Oat Rock Island two months ago. Unnecessarily diverted, she reminded herself. She had been forced to kill before she was ready to keep the Colonel’s secret projects under wraps. Her jaw involuntarily clamped shut. She wanted to feel rage, but all she could muster was stunned silence.
The lights dimmed in the briefing room as the front wall parted to reveal a large recessed screen behind the veneer. It briefly displayed the RAID insignia as it turned on, quickly switching to a roster display of the eight ponies selected for the operation. All of the pictures were grayed out except for one on the top left, a sea-green mare with a stark white mane.
“For those of you who don’t know,” North Star began, “this is Captain Highwind. She is one of Theta Division’s top reconnaissance experts and will be in command of this operation. I’d share some of her accomplishments with you all, but frankly…” He ran a hoof through his navy mane. “It’s all need-to-know, and you don’t. Moving on…”
The next picture highlighted itself, an aged stallion with a rusty orange coat and close-cropped silver mane. “First Sergeant Iron Forge will be your senior non-commissioned officer. He’s been in for twenty-seven years, twenty of them with Theta. If anypony knows infiltration, it’s him.”
The words hardly registered with Rainbow. All she could think about was the pain the Colonel’s actions had caused her. If he had stayed his hoof, if he had only had the restraint to leave the intercept to the Royal Guard…
North Star stepped away from the podium. “I’ll turn the rest of the brief over to them now.” He nodded to the two ponies in the front row. “Captain, Sergeant… all yours.”
The pair exchanged a quick glance before the mare nodded to her counterpart. Grunting, First Sergeant Iron Forge rose from his seat and hovered onto the stage, foregoing the podium entirely. He began his segment of the brief with the unrefined but seasoned professionalism unique to sergeants.
“Alright, listen up so we don’t have to go over this twice.” He retrieved a small remote from the podium and pushed a button, changing the slide. “We’ve got ourselves an old-fashioned recon mission. The griffons been working on some big frickin’ complex in the middle of a jungle, and we wanna know what it’s for.”
The screen displayed a map of the Griffon Kingdom’s west coast. An area to the south was highlighted, and a red dot pulsed near the center of the amorphous shape. “The entire site is surrounded by rainforest for at least thirty klicks. If they use roads to get in and out, we can’t tell, because the jungle hides everything they didn’t clear.”
The display zoomed in on the flashing dot, switching to a topographical map of the surrounding forest. “The best vantage point is on a ridge about five hundred meters to the west. We’ll each set up there and record the buildings’ activity in pairs for twenty-four hours, then we egress to a communication vessel waiting just outside the Kingdom’s territorial waters.
“Now, I know what some of you are thinking. ‘This is a milk run. Why are they puttin’ together a frickin’ all-star team to deal with this?’ Well, there’s a catch. No kidding, right?” He changed the display again, zooming out to a view of the entire jungle. “The facility is surrounded by an early-warning sensor system. Each individual sensor station has a radius of twenty-seven thousand meters in every direction, including straight up.”
An operative in front of Dash spoke up suddenly. “So how do we deal with that? That’s way higher than a pegasus can fly. Going by airship will take weeks to get there. And if we do an amphib op upriver, it’ll take even longer. Not to mention the patrols they’ve probably got swarming through those hills.”
The First Sergeant’s eyes narrowed. “I’m gonna explain it, operative. You think they’d call us all in here just to say it’s impossible? Don’t answer that, I want to pretend you’re still smart.” He changed the slide again.
Dash’s eyes widened as she beheld the picture. She was not sure what she was looking at, but she knew one thing for certain – it was very, very secret.
Captain Highwind rose for the first time during the brief, joining the First Sergeant on the stage. “What you’re all gawking at is the XM-1 Albatross. It’s the world’s first fixed-wing aircraft, the result of years of research on alternatives to lighter-than-air buoyancy. The Lambda Division brains and grease monkeys have been itching to graduate from midnight test flights over the ocean. Assuming the test data is accurate, it has the chops to get us up and over that sensor field.”
She paused for a moment, noting the bewildered expressions on her team’s faces. “I assure you, it’s very real. You’ll be boarding it in a few hours. Am I correct in assuming you’ve all been trained to HALO from airships?”
The operatives nodded meekly, still distracted by the fantastic machine. She cleared her throat in an attempt to recapture their attention. “We’ll be jumping from the tail door once we reach the drop zone. The only difference between this and an airship jump will be the initial velocity. Just pretend it’s high-altitude wind shear.”
With a click, the screen faded as the lights brightened. Iron Forge stepped forward on the stage. “You all know the drill for HALO. Pressure suits have been selected for all of you. Just remember that once you ditch it, you’ll be in a jungle. It’s gonna be hot, and it’s gonna be really, really humid. Like swimming in the frickin’ air.”
The Captain whispered something into his ear. “Already got it ready,” he replied in a hushed tone. “The quartermaster learned a long time ago to just give me what I ask for.”
He turned to the gathered operatives. “One more thing. This is an infiltration mission, and we look like a frickin’ pastel painting. Not so good for sneaking around in the jungle. Head to the locker room and we’ll get that fixed. Dismissed.”
Dash rose with the rest of the team, casting a final glance at Colonel North Star. She wondered if he had been involved with the selection of the final team. His involvement struck her as more than a little suspicious. This was not an operation that required oversight from such a high level. The Captain and the First Sergeant seemed to have things well in hoof.
Dissonance echoed through Rainbow’s mind. The Colonel had done little to earn her trust or put her worries at ease. She was certain the stallion had an agenda, one of which she could barely hope to glimpse. Sending an elite team all the way to the shores of the Griffon Kingdom could only hint at a much larger plan unfolding within the shadowy confines of Theta Division.
However, Dash had taken an oath to RAID, same as every other pony upon whom the insignia had been bestowed. Colonel North Star was her superior, and his actions were governed by the Commandant and, ultimately, Celestia and Luna. To doubt him would be to doubt the Princesses. Despite her personal dislike of the Princesses’ tendency towards patience and lenience, she respected their rule and honored their decisions. They installed North Star to his position and trusted him to run Theta Division with the best interests of Equestria in mind.
A frustrated sigh escaped her lips. Try as she might, she could not square her distrust of the Colonel with her loyalty to the Princesses. The two ideas refused to mix, slipping over each other like an oil slick on ocean waves. Hanging her head in resignation, she filed in with the other pegasi as they shuffled towards the locker room.
12 JUN 05 MIL-STD CAL
Operation THUNDERHEAD Mission clock: T+ 6:37:02
Twenty kilometers past Griffon Kingdom coastline
Despite living underground for over a year, Dash had still not become accustomed to small spaces. The odd, twisting hallways of the Hub, though occasionally narrow and confining, had an organic quality to them that staved off claustrophobia enough for most pegasi to stay for extended periods of time without having a nervous breakdown. Following the natural seams of the rock lent a sense of being in harmony with nature to the otherwise spartan Hub, which Dash had come to appreciate.
Her current location offered no such respite. The dimly lit metal shell of the aircraft was built to use as little material as possible. The arcane dynamos mounted below each wing had very limited output, so weight was shaved off in every possible place. Cargo comfort was, at best, a tertiary concern in the designers’ minds.
Dash’s ears were filled with the incessant buzzing hum of the dynamos’ output. Every so often, the flying machine would hit a patch of high-altitude turbulence, shaking and bucking violently. The sensation of hitting such disturbed air pockets while on her hooves was foreign to Dash, and the pressurized altitude suit encasing her petite form compounded her discomfort. Despite the fact that the Theta Division squad was well within Griffon Kingdom territory, Dash was eager to leave the confines of the Albatross.
The pilot’s voice flanged in Dash’s tinny helmet speakers. “Beginning sensor field avoidance. Brace for maneuver.”
No sooner had the pilot cut off the transmission than the Albatross banked to the right, avoiding the edge of the early warning sensors’ range. The operatives inside shifted their weight to compensate, leaning on the opposite legs when the machine reversed its roll to turn the other direction. Though the bank was sharp, the seasoned operatives were unfazed by the steep angle.
Dash prayed that the intelligence on the griffons’ sensors was accurate. The XM-1 was neither small nor stealthy. If the sensors could see up past the predicted twenty-seven thousand meters, the team would be jumping straight into Tartarus. She had not given much consideration to how she wanted to die, but face-down in a swamp on a different continent was not how she pictured herself going out. A spectacular crash during a Wonderbolts training session, perhaps, but not belly-deep in rotting muck five thousand kilometers from home.
The aircraft’s bank began to decrease, finally slipping back into level flight. “Sensor field cleared. Beginning approach to DZ. Ninety seconds to jump.”
Iron Forge shuffled his way to the rear ramp, briefly removing his helmet to shout over the dynamos’ roar. “Y’all heard the mare! Make sure everypony’s squared away for the jump! Final equipment check!”
With practiced efficiency, the operatives double-checked the straps and seals on each other’s suits for functionality. Weapons were secured, parachutes adjusted, crystal comms tested.
“Sixty seconds. On DZ approach vector.”
The sergeant at the rear raised his voice again. “One minute! Line up for jump!” He pumped his foreleg up and down in a clear nonverbal signal for those who could not hear him over the din outside. The operatives formed two orderly lines in the cargo bay, all mentally reviewing the jump procedure. Dash took her place near the end of the line. Her slight frame would result in a low terminal velocity, raising the dangerous possibility of a midair collision should a heavier pony catch up to her during the jump.
“Thirty seconds. Red is on. Red is on.”
A bright red light lit up above a lever near the tail ramp. After securing his helmet’s pressure seals, the stallion yanked the lever down with a grunt. Servos whirred as the ramp lowered, quickly overpowered by the roaring wind outside. The stars were obscured by a thin layer of cirrus clouds, keeping the world pitch black as the ponies prepared to jump.
“Ten seconds to green.”
Dash could barely hear the pilot’s announcement over the blast from the dynamos and three-hundred-kilometer-per-hour wind outside. She tensed her muscles, readying herself for the jump ahead. In those last few seconds, she felt a vestige of her past self get excited at the stunt she was about to undertake. No pegasus could fly nearly as high as the Albatross was carrying them, making the experience unique even to her standards. No wings, little control… just pure freefall for thirty kilometers.
Dash watched the mission clock tick down on her heads-up display. The seconds passed impossibly slow, barely crawling down from five to four, three, two, one… and finally zero.
“Green is on! Green is on! Green is on!”
Rainbow galloped forward three steps and stepped into the darkness, allowing gravity to take over. The inky blackness of night completely surrounded her, taking away all sense of direction. The only thing keeping her properly oriented was the artificial horizon projected on her faceplate. Her squadmates were displayed as blue diamonds below her, separating to a safe distance from each other. They formed a rough circle as they descended, all facing inwards.
The altimeter on Dash’s faceplate spun down at a dizzying rate as she approached terminal velocity. Her pressure suit pinned her wings to her side, creating an extremely unnatural sensation as she plummeted to the earth with a fraction of the control she had grown used to after years on wings. Flashes of Discord’s first return played through her mind. It was only through sheer force of will that she kept herself from panicking.
As she passed through 25,000 meters, she saw the blue diamonds representing the first jumpers begin to slip away, falling faster than their lighter teammates. Her sense of weightlessness passed as she finally reached terminal velocity, replaced with the paradoxical feeling of ‘stationary speed’. Inside her helmet, the world was nearly silent. The only indication she had that she was going anywhere at all was the altimeter that clocked a constant rate of descent in the predawn darkness.
The Captain’s voice filtered through her helmet speakers. “Approaching high-altitude patrol level. Initiate comm silence. Proceed to individual vantage points after you touch down.”
Shearing winds buffeted the formation as they descended, blowing some of the lighter team members out of position. Dash adjuster her body as much as possible to counter the sharp gusts, but without her wings, she was more or less at their mercy. She tapped a button on her foreleg, displaying her projected path of descent. Much to her relief, it was still within the designated landing zone, but only just.
Two minutes into the descent, the first purple streaks appeared on the eastern horizon, signaling the imminent dawn. The jump had been timed perfectly. They would touch down and regroup in darkness, but the longer, more difficult trek to their target would be made with morning’s light to assist them. It was perfectly timed to allow for stealth when necessary and speed when possible.
The descent continued. Air roared past Dash’s helmet, thundering in her ears despite the insulating suit separating her from the atmosphere. Her only indications that she was not alone were the slowly spreading blue diamonds marking the location of her airborne teammates. Though the formation was beginning to fragment, everypony was still on course to land comfortably inside the LZ. So far, so good.
Suddenly, her mind went completely blank. All her worries and nervous energy vanished in an instant. The uncomfortable sensation of falling without wings passed, replaced with an adrenaline rush the likes of which she had not felt in years, not since her Sonic Rainboom while rescuing Rarity and the Wonderbolts. Excitement began building within her. This was something new, something simple… something exciting!
The last vestige of Dash’s situational awareness checked her parachute’s auto-deploy altitude before it was completely overwhelmed by the sudden shift in her mindset. No sooner had she finished checking than her mind was overrun with the kind of unchecked giddiness she had not even realized she missed. For the first time in months, Rainbow smiled in sheer joy. She let out an ecstatic cry as she hurtled towards the ground, trusting her life entirely to the mechanical systems strapped to her back.
Five minutes of descent passed like seconds as adrenaline coursed through Rainbow’s veins. Those few minutes were an island of carefree reverie in the midst of her high-stakes life. Dash was certain that if her suit were still broadcasting vital signs, the team commander would have sidelined her immediately, but in her thrill-seeking high, she could hardly have cared less.
A sharp yank on her suit brought her back from the unexpected reprieve. She looked up to see her parachute fully deployed, its edges flapping wildly as it slowed her rapid drop to a gentle floating descent. Her altimeter read six hundred meters when she reached her final speed of five meters per second.
Glancing below, she could just barely make out a twisting ribbon amongst the dark canopy stretching around her. It curved and undulated against the landscape, reversing direction only to fold back over itself again and again. If I can manage to squeeze myself in there, she thought, I won’t have to go into all of the trouble of getting my chute out of the trees. Thank Celestia, because that whole process is totally uncool.
She shifted her weight against the suit’s harness in an attempt to subtly alter the course of her descent. The parachute sluggishly complied, tilting enough to send her towards the thin band cutting across the jungle. Dash was feeling very satisfied with her judgment and performance when she came to a very disturbing realization.
Oh, ponyfeathers. That’s a river.
Rainbow frantically tried to alter her course once again, but the damage had been done. She floated down below the trees and hit the river’s surface with a loud, gurgling splash.
She fought to untangle herself from her parachute as it landed on top of her, swirling along with the river’s flowing eddies. Her suit provided more than enough air, but an innate sense of panic gripped her nonetheless. The release button for the harness eluded her for nearly a minute before her wild flailing managed to find it. The straps came loose from her pressure suit, taking the tough fabric of the parachute along with it as it floated along with the river’s current.
Come on, Dash! That was sloppy! You’ve been trained better than that. A Wonderbolt wouldn’t have made that mistake.
Popping her head above the surface, Dash swam toward the muddy bank, wrapping her forelegs around the roots of gnarled, ancient trees worn smooth by years in the water. The river’s current was gentle enough that she was able to resist the force without straining herself, but it was still enough to warrant a swift exit lest she lose her balance.
Alright, no harm done, really. You gotta pick yourself up from here and finish the mission – no more mistakes. You can do this.
Pulling herself from the murky water proved more difficult than she would have imagined, as the banks were steep and covered in foliage slick from the previous night’s rain. Her first attempt ended when she slipped on a wet fern, bouncing off the roots before falling on her rump into the shallows below. She stood up after an embarrassing few seconds, gingerly rubbing her hindquarters. Newly educated as to the bank’s hazards, she waded downstream towards a likely looking site and hoisted herself up, careful to avoid the waxy leaves of jungle undergrowth.
After a minute’s difficult ascent, Rainbow reached the top of the riverbank. She paused before finally setting her hooves on level ground. She heard no voices or odd rustling; nothing to suggest she had been detected. Keeping herself as low as possible, she slipped into a thicket of gnarled roots, scanning the jungle around her for movement.
She quickly discovered that such a thing was impossible to avoid in the rainforest. Despite the early hour, birds and primates had already taken to the forest canopy, shaking branches along their paths. Broad leaves shook each time a water droplet impacted from above, creating a cascade as even more water fell onto the leaves below. A thin fog rolled in along the damp floor, escaping the riverbed that had imprisoned it so far. Insects filled the air with their droning hum as they traced looping arcs between tree trunks and giant ferns.
In the multitude of activity, though, there was no griffon patrol to be found. Dash was alone.
She reached for the seal on her helmet. Her hooves had difficulty getting purchase on the wet knobs, but she eventually was able to unlock the airtight barrier that had kept her breathing on the way down. With a quiet hiss, the suit’s integrity yielded to the surrounding air.
For a brief moment, Dash thought she was still underwater. She quickly realized, however, that she was simply breathing the oppressively humid air of the jungle. The First Sergeant’s description echoed in the back of her mind. Like swimming in the frickin’ air. She had a new appreciation for what he meant as the muggy jungle pressed on her without mercy.
The damp air was not alone in offending her senses. Even before sunrise, the air was hot, hotter than the worst heat wave Ponyville had suffered in living memory. She was sweating within seconds of unsealing her suit, and the stagnant humidity kept her fur matted with her own perspiration. The duo of heat and humidity made the already uncomfortable jumpsuit unbearable.
She quietly stripped down the rest of the pressure suit, revealing her body in full. Gone were her namesake mane and sky-blue coat, replaced by a drab green with sage stripes across her face and body, mimicking the shadows cast by dense foliage surrounding her. Her bodysuit had been stripped down and dyed as well, sporting the same camouflage as the young operative. Even the already-light armor plating had been removed. Stealth was her best defense, and any extra weight would simply cause her to sink further into the belly-deep muck she would be wading through en route to the observation point.
Removing the suit while hiding in the thicket was an exercise in patience and restraint, but she eventually freed herself entirely. The black pieces were thrown into the river, immediately sinking out of sight in the muddy water. Thus lightened, she checked her camouflaged bodysuit for her only three pieces of equipment. A single earbud was attached to the crystal comm on her back and secured around her right ear. A see-through display, when held up in front of her, highlighted the best path towards her observation point with a dim red glow. Concealed on her belly was the dagger she hoped would not be necessary.
Dash looked into the dark jungle once more, still unable to discern any patrolling silhouettes moving about in the predawn hours. When a minute passed without any activity, Dash slowly crept from her hiding place, careful to disturb as little foliage as possible. The natural ambiance of the rainforest, though spooky and slightly disquieting, masked the sound of her movements nearly flawlessly. Combined with her dyed coat and the near-blackness of the early hour, she would practically need to run into a hostile patrol for them to discover her presence.
She patiently made her way through the forest on light hooves, leaving as little trace as possible. Every dozen meters or so, she would check her display to ensure she was still heading in the right direction. She would often have to take a detour around fallen trees or suspicious clearings, occasionally losing her bearings while navigating such obstacles. Nevertheless, her progress continued steadily. She covered the first five hundred meters in an hour, slowly witnessing the light return through the dense canopy above as she pushed past giant ferns, horsetails, and pitcher plants.
Rainbow was less than three hundred meters away when she heard an unnatural series of rustles to her right. She froze immediately, eyes darting back and forth in an attempt to locate the source. The sound repeated itself. Dash quietly melted back into the shadows, concealing herself among the leafy fronds of the rainforest floor.
The sense of dread that had preceded every contact with warriors of the Griffon Kingdom was less intense than in weeks previous. Her mind was becoming a finely honed weapon, concentrating on her response should she be discovered more than panicking at the prospect of combat. She still had to suppress her initial fight-or-flight response, but it was muted, as though it were speaking through a closed door.
Through the swirling mist, three dark silhouettes appeared, marching single file along a hidden path. The repetitive telltale sound of claws and paws pushing through the dense undergrowth grew louder, confirming Rainbow’s suspicions. Within moments, the silhouettes sharpened into the imposing figures of griffon warriors on patrol.
Something was off with the small squad, though. Dash’s previous experiences with soldiers of the Griffon Kingdom told her that they were cunning, predatory creatures, always alert for signs of their enemies. The three-strong patrol passing by her, though, seemed to share none of the attributes for which their race was known. Their eyes were half-lidded and unfocused, lacking the sharp scanning motion inherited from their raptor ancestors. Tufts of fur gathered jungle grime as their tails dragged along the muddy ground. Their movements were slow and sloppy, constantly disturbing foliage and making noise. From her hidden position beneath a broadleaf plant, Dash could have sworn something had swapped the griffons for a far less imposing opponent.
The patrol passed without incident, failing to notice the intruder barely three meters away. Rainbow gave them time to venture further into the jungle before moving from her hiding spot. She silently thanked whatever forces had caused the legendary griffon warriors to lose their edge. If they hadn’t been so sloppy, she mused, if they’d just watched where they were walking, I’d have bumped straight into them.
She filed the incident away for later recall, pushing forward into the vegetation once the squad had sufficiently vanished into the mist again. I dunno what’s gotten into them, but it’ll be useful intel to pass once I reach the ship.
A light drizzle began to fall as she shuffled through the jungle, beads of moisture rolling off the oily dye on her coat. The extra moisture did little to dissipate the oppressive heat all around her, merely making the forest floor muddier and more slippery. Her progress was slowed even further, but after fifteen minutes of fighting through the vegetation, she finally reached her destination.
A shiver ran down her spine as she noticed a slight tremble in a large plant near the ridge. Cautiously, she drew the dagger from its sheath on her belly, gripping it tightly between her teeth. The leaves shook again, rustling slightly as something within stirred. Dash lowered herself into the vegetation, her hind legs ready to propel her onto an ambushing griffon.
Thirty seconds passed. A minute. The hot mist swirled in small eddies around her hooves, filtering into the leaves of the suspect undergrowth. There was no movement. Another minute passed. Dash fluttered her wings nervously. Something had caused the plant to move, but whatever it was either left quietly or was keeping very still.
She debated using the identification codeword and response, but that meant giving away her position – tactically, a very poor choice. On the other hoof, if she was walking into an ambush, they already knew she was nearby. It was a bad situation, and she was not going to sit around and let the enemy seize the initiative. She tucked the dagger under her wing and, in her best stage whisper, called out the code word.
After a moment of complete silence, her heart sank. She gripped the dagger and leaned into her hind legs, coiled like a spring. Whatever was out there was about to get a first-hoof lesson in pain.
The word caught Rainbow off guard. Sure enough, it was the proper counter-response. Dash crept from the concealing shadows, sheathing her dagger. A small stallion rose from the bushes, warily eyeing Rainbow as she approached.
“What were you waiting for?” she hissed. “I was about to slice you to ribbons!”
“Waiting for?” the stallion replied angrily. “You nearly scared the Celestia-damned life outta me! Why did you approach like a tigress on the hunt?”
Dash rolled her eyes. “Maybe you haven’t noticed, pal, but we’re in griffon territory! Would you be happier if I’d set off some fireworks? Maybe break into song?”
The stallion rubbed his temple, unwilling to admit defeat. “Whatever. Let’s get the surveillance set up.”
The ridge gave an unobstructed view of the concrete structures below. Several pre-fabricated buildings were clustered around a central warehouse, into which a large team of griffons pushed carts loaded with large wooden crates. Individual guards patrolled inside the perimeter, occasionally glancing into the canopy outside the wall. Dash could see two gates leading into the dense foliage, each occupied by several guards checking shipments in and out.
“Big production they’ve got going on down there,” Rainbow whispered. “No wonder Colonel North Star wants to know what they were up to.”
“No kidding.” The stallion prodded the jungle floor with a camouflaged hoof. “The dirt right here should be enough to support the recording device. Set it up under this fern.”
Rainbow lowered herself to the ground, blending in with the undergrowth. She retrieved the clear display and held it before her, pressing a small red button on the side. The letters REC in the top left corner assured her that the small device had indeed switched modes and was recording the complex’s activity. She folded out a pair of long, thin legs and secured the device in the soft earth, careful to maintain a full view of the clearing.
Satisfied that everything was secure, she untied a length of fabric from her leg and wrapped it around her muzzle – a trick she had learned during infiltration training to suppress snoring. She settled near the fern’s base, curling into a ball on the damp rainforest floor.
“Wake me in a few hours,” she said with a yawn. “We’ll switch off until we exfil tomorrow.”
“Can do,” the stallion whispered. “I’ll rouse you at 1200.”
With a final check that she was safely hidden under a large fern, Dash settled in for the most awkward nap she had ever taken.
13 JUN 05 MIL-STD CAL
Dash awoke to an incessant buzzing in her ear, not unlike many similar disturbances in her attempted jungle naps. Even with the camo dye’s supposed insect-repellant properties, she had been swarmed by bugs ever since lying down beneath the fern. Her hope that the six-legged demons would retire with the sun proved to be not only inaccurate, but completely the opposite of reality. The discomfort was compounded by the fact that she could not make any sudden movements to swat the repulsive creatures away, lest she give up her position to any guards who happened to glance in her direction.
She groggily rubbed her ear, hoping to drive off whatever insect had taken an interest in her. Rather than dispelling the noise, though, her efforts brought it into sharp relief.
“…engage unless no alternatives are available. Wrap up your gear and rendezvous at Rally Point Golf at zero-four. No single fliers – stick together. Repeat, all units, this is Chandelier. Mission is being cut short. Prepare to exfiltrate in five mikes. Leave no gear behind. Do not engage unless no alternatives are available…”
Dash cocked her head in confusion. They were leaving early? The original orders were for twenty-four hours of surveillance before leaving. They were barely at eighteen. What had changed?
Her mute questions were interrupted when her teammate stuck his head under the giant fern, whispering as loud as he dared. “Dash! You awake?”
“Ugh… I think so…”
“You heard the comm?”
The stallion nodded curtly. “Let’s go, then. We gotta pack this thing up before we head out.”
His head disappeared into the darkness beyond, leaving Dash alone under the fern. She yawned the last of her sleep away, stretching her limbs before climbing out from under the leafy plant. Her teammate had already removed the recording device and was in the process of shutting it down for transport. Rainbow arched her back, unfurling her wings to their full span in preparation for the new plan. There had better be a really good reason they’re making us pack up at half-past three in the morning…
Her partner hoofed her the recording device, which she stashed in its original pocket on her bodysuit. With a final yawn, she shook off the last of her sleepiness. “Ready to go?”
The stallion nodded. “Anytime. Rally point’s fifteen klicks southwest. We gotta stay low and fly an erratic route. With any luck, the sensors will think we’re birds until everypony else rendezvous with us.”
Rainbow eyed him suspiciously. “And then what happens?”
With a grin, he produced two oblong metal pods from his saddlebag. “Broadband signal jamming. Once we fire these puppies up, the griffons will be blind as bats. By the time they figure out what’s going on, we’ll already be over the ocean.”
“Doesn’t sound very stealthy,” Dash remarked. “I thought this was an infiltration mission.”
The stallion shrugged. “We’re already doing an emergency regroup. I’m guessing somepony got found.” He motioned to the sky. “Shall we?”
Wordlessly, Rainbow took wing, followed closely by her partner. They skimmed the treetops, glad to be leaving the damp, oppressive air of the rainforest behind.
15 JUN 05 MIL-STD CAL
For the first time in over three days, Dash could appreciate her namesake mane and soft cyan coat. The oily dye had blended perfectly with the waterlogged vegetation in the Griffon Kingdom’s southern jungles, but it was not particularly comfortable, especially after wearing it for eighty-plus hours. The ship they had met after fleeing the rainforest had a malfunctioning water purifier, leaving nothing for showers or sinks. It was not until their return to the Hub that the operatives were able to remove their camouflage.
After a long, thorough shower, Dash trotted to the same briefing room she had sat in during the mission brief. Her mind pondered the operation. She still understood neither the facility’s purpose nor Colonel North Star’s interest in it, which worried her. There was something about the Colonel that made her suspect he had more than ‘actionable intelligence’ in mind when he had decided to snoop around the complex.
Everything else, though, seemed to be going well. From an objective standpoint, the mission had gone about as well as could be hoped. Despite the early evacuation, they had still gathered hours of surveillance data from multiple angles. Their infiltration had gone undetected. Judging by the lack of harassment on the way to the ship, the same could likely be said of their exit. Even her little slip-up in the river had not cost them anything.
Rainbow smiled to herself. It was about time something went right. Everything since her first encounter had gone sour in some way, and she was beginning to suspect she was jinxed. Her old confidence was beginning to re-emerge, as evidenced by her arrogant strut as she sauntered down the concrete corridors of Theta Division’s Headquarters. Ponies who knew her as a quiet, confused newbie were doing double takes at the young pegasus mare who now trotted around with her head held high. One operative, though, finally saw the pony she had known so long ago.
“Lookin’ good, Dash!”
She looked over her shoulder to see Gilda float down beside her. The griffon offered her claw for a bump, which Rainbow accepted with a smile. “Last week, you looked like a hatchling who’d lost her mommy. Now you’re walking around like you own the place. Did those weirdoes in Psy Ops get to you or something?”
Dash chuckled. “Nah, nothing like that. Just glad to have things finally go my way, y’know?”
“You mean your latest op?”
Dash nodded, a self-satisfied grin plastered on her face.
Gilda returned the expression. “I know the feeling. That first break is a real game-changer, isn’t it?”
“No kidding. I was starting to think I’d made a unicorn mad and earned myself a curse or something.”
Gilda snorted in reply. “Yeah, you’d love an excuse like that.” She cleared her throat, preparing her best imitation of Rainbow’s voice. “’It’s not my fault! I was only flying so terribly because somepony cursed me!’” she whined, adding an excessive crack to her voice at the end of her taunt.
Scowling, Dash elbowed her handler. “I don’t sound like that,” she mumbled.
“That’s totally how you sound, dude.”
Rainbow rolled her eyes rather than admitting defeat.
Sensing her victory, Gilda savored the feeling for a few seconds before switching the topic. “So, Dash, I got an early look at the preliminary intel reports from your past couple of missions.”
Dash’s ears perked. “Oh yeah? How do things look?”
“Huh? Oh, terrible,” Gilda replied, waving her claw dismissively. “The situation’s going to Tartarus in a tote bag. That’s not what I’m talking about, though.”
She glanced around, making sure nopony else was in earshot. She leaned in, dropping her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “A friend of mine in Theta let me in on their next move. He couldn’t say much, but he did say we’re pretty much done sitting on our haunches and waiting for something to happen.”
Rainbow cocked her head, unsure of what to make of her friend’s rumor. “Oh yeah? W-what’s that mean?”
Gilda leaned back, shrugging. “Couldn’t say. But if I had to guess, I’d bet we’re finally gonna take the fight to those dweebs with their lame clans and junk. Nip things in the bud before it starts a full-blown war, y’know?”
“Uh, maybe it’s just because I’m new here,” Dash replied, “but I don’t see how more fighting will stop a war. Won’t that just make the Griffon Kingdom angrier?”
“If the Griffon Kingdom was actually behind it all, yeah, probably. But Theta Division’s been very busy.” Gilda scanned the concrete tunnel for unwanted listeners, dropping her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “That ship you hit on your last op was registered to Nor’easter Heavy Industries. It’s a griffon-owned company out of Moscrow that makes everything from construction machines to military hardware. They’ve got a ton of government contracts in the Kingdom, but not all of their business is what you’d call ‘legitimate.’”
Dash grimaced. “A company? You mean this could all be about money?”
“Oh, yeah. And it gets worse. The communication equipment recovered from the arctic? Nor’easter Heavy Industries.”
“Let me guess,” Rainbow interjected. “The complex we spied on was owned by Nor’easter.”
“Eh. Almost. It’s a government facility, but Nor’easter has a lot of crates stacked up there. Probably a bunch of geeks doing R&D.”
“Great. So it’s bunch of ironmongers,” Dash grumbled.
Gilda shrugged. “War’s profitable if you’re the one selling the weapons.”
“Ughhh,” Rainbow groaned. “That had better not be the case. I’d spit my bit.”
They reached the briefing room’s door. Gilda entered the access code on the keypad, stepping back as the sealed door hissed open. “Well, this debrief should be very educational. Let’s go find out what the eggheads have to say.”
Dash extended a hoof to the open door with a mock bow. “After you.”
Gilda rolled her eyes as she passed. “You’re such a dweeb.”
NEXT CHAPTER: “For Valor”