I glanced up, for the fifth time in as many minutes. Luna was still staring to her left, at the lockers against the back wall, the edge of her mouth making a tight little corner. As if sensing my attention, like every time before, her eyes flicked to mine, and my gaze jerked back down to my hands once again. She stared for a moment, in my peripheral vision, before shifting her gaze back to the lockers, mouth pulling back into that tight corner.
Neither of us knew what to say, and neither of us wanted to make the first move. On one hand, she'd just been threatening me with a very much loaded and deadly rifle, and no doubt frightened and confused. On the other, we'd more or less just saved each-other's lives, me with the plinking that had distracted the tarwolf, and her putting it down with the heavier assault rifle. I mean, how does one respond to a turnabout like that?
I rubbed the fabric of the bedspread between my fingers, noting that it was a bit old but still seemed to be holding together surprisingly well.
"What is this place?"
I practically leaped off of the bed at those words. As it was, my head jerked up, surprise written all over my expression. Luna, for her part, winced a little and muttered out a small 'sorry'. I shook my head.
"No, no, it's a reasonable enough question... well, um, how to put this..." I tilted my head back and narrowed my eyes at the gray concrete ceiling of the barracks room. "Really, I was hoping that, well, you could tell me. We're underneath Twilight Sparkle's castle, right outside Ponyville, that much I know... but the place is in ruins, all moldered and broken-down, and there's ever sign of some sort of war going down. A defensive one, that it looked like the ponies... lost."
I flicked my gaze down to her muzzle, and this time it was my turn to wince. There was a thick latticework of emotions on her face: fear, the deep and sickening brand of the stuff that made your heart clench, desperate and awful. Concern, worry, and a few others intermixed, her eyes wide and shining with it all.
"Look, I don't know. I just appeared here earlier today, I walk into town and everything's in ruins. Plantlife everywhere, buildings collapsed... the castle's sealed up so tight that I can't even get in. Even the entrance in here is blocked off with this crystal stuff that doesn't even chip when shot or smashed. This place's still running, there's still power somehow, all the computers and machines still work..."
"My sister. What about my Sister? Or Twilight? Please." The edge in her voice hurt to listen to, that desperation...
I shook my head. "I don't know. If they're... um, still out there, they're not here. I haven't seen any signs that ponies have visited this place in years."
She screwed her eyes shut tight, ears flat against her skull, and took a deep, shuddering breath that sounded just inches from being a sob. And then the emotions were gone, and she was looking at me intently.
"What else?" I bit my lip, hesitating a moment before continuing.
"Not much else to tell. I came down here, followed the signs to something called the 'Core'. On the other side of a lab, I found a room- the room you woke up in, the one with the computers all over the walls and the big screen with the... timer... oh, dear."
I'd forgotten about it, and now it was all that I could think of. That big, foreboding screen, numbers counting down to something that was more than likely disastrous. I took a surprised breath and jerked a little as something pressed into my shoulder: looking up from where my eyes had drifted, I realized that Luna was standing, leaning across the gap between the two beds, hoof pressed into my shoulder and very real concern drawn across her muzzle.
"Keep it together, alright? Until further notice, we're, well..." She closed her eyes and took a breath, calling that steel back. "We're all we've got. And, eh... I'm sorry for pointing a rifle at you." She had the courtesy to look sheepish at the last, and the sight of that actually made me smile despite it all. I mean, it was Princess Luna, making a facial expression that could be considered extremely cute. You'd have to be a heartless bastard for it not to cheer you up just a little.
"Well... apology accepted, on the condition that you don't do it again."
Awkwardly, I held out my hand. She stared at it for a moment, then met it with her hoof and we shook. The gesture was so completely awkward and uncomfortable that I couldn't help but crack another grin, and looking up confirmed that there was something of a lift in the corner of her mouth. We finished the shake and let go, her hoof and my hand returning to our respective bedspreads.
"Okay. We have little information, two ponies- ah... people, and a rifle and a handgun. I just... ugh, I wish my head wasn't so fuzzy..." she shook it side to side, as if that would clear the fog within. I clasped my hands in my lap thoughtfully.
"That might have something to do with the stasis tube you were in."
Her eyes snapped to me, blinking. "Stasis?"
"Someone... ah, somepony, had placed you in a stasis pod. I don't know who, or for how long, I can only guess that it kept you in a state of suspended animation here, in the lowest basement of the compound. There was a warning when I pulled you out, said that you might experience some physical lashback from the release procedure. Nothing catastrophic, nothing that would require medical attention, just disorientation, vertigo, dizziness... and mild amnesia."
Her head tilted back, lips pulling apart in another grimace and a groan slipping through her teeth. "Ugh, that would explain everything, then. I can remember... old things. My, um.... rebellion. My redemption, at the hands of Twilight and her friends. A few things from the years after, Discord, Chrysalis..." She dropped to a melancholy whisper. "My sister."
"So when does it stop?"
She frowned. "It doesn't... feel like a wall, or a straight line, if that makes sense. There's just these places of emptiness in my memory, where I'm sure that something should go. It's like having a word on the tip of your tongue, where you can almost taste the definition, but it's still just beyond your reach."
"How do you even...?"
She raised an eyebrow. "I am Princess Luna, the defender of dreams. It was little known, even before my, um... well. Anyway, I am a master of the mental arts." She sat a bit straighter at this, pride in her gaze and her visage, then suddenly curled in on herself a little with a wince. "Not that it's really doing much right now... I can, in a way, feel around the holes and detect them, places where there should be memory, but instead there is nothing. These get denser and denser the closer to the present I attempt to remember. The most recent one is so muddled, I can't..."
She closed her eyes tight, her muzzle scrunching, horn lighting up ever so slightly with just a hint of her blue power.
"There's... there's something there. Someone, maybe. Large. Red.... chains? I... I can't make sense of it." She let go of it, slumping a little. "Whatever... huff... whatever was being done to me in that tube, I feel much, much weaker than I ever remember. It's an effort to do anything, even my hair is just... this."
A strand of her light blue hair, so similar to what she'd had at the beginning of the pilot episode, was surrounded with a blue glow and lifted into her line of sight where she could glare at it almost in a bad tempered manner.
"I think it looks fine."
Her head jerked up and she gave me a look of surprise. "Um... thank you?"
"Don't mention it. But, you really do feel weaker?"
She nodded, glumly. "It's a feeling, more than anything else, like if I tried to draw much more than telekinesis and some basic spells then I'm just not going to deliver."
"Is that why you didn't just blast that tarwolf and be done with it?"
She blinked. "What? No! I didn't do that because... because..." her eyes shut tight, hooves going to her temples, massaging in circles. "I don't... I don't know...? I know that I shouldn't, it's bad because..." She made a frustrated noise. This time it was me making the gesture, a hand going to her shoulder. She twitched away from it, ever so slightly, but she didn't object.
"Look, you've just forgotten some things. They're gone for the moment, you'll get them back with time. Besides, right now, there are things that deserve our attention."
Her hooves dropped back to the bed. "The timer." I nodded solemnly. "Ah... well, it's not much, but it's at least something."
"Seven days. Well, six and nine-tenths."
She nodded, thoughtfully. After a moment, she stood and hopped down from the bunk, trotting out the door.
"We need to take a closer look, without... eh, without one of us pointing a rifle at the other."
I groaned. I was tired, exhausted, and even this military bunk with its thin mattress felt softer than featherbed under me right now. But, in the end, I forced myself to my feet and followed in her hoofsteps. I paused at the door, then reached over and hooked the rifle's strap, sliding it over my shoulder and earning an approving glance from Luna.
"Better safe than sorry..."
She nodded. "I couldn't agree more. Especially if there are more of those 'tarwolves'."
I thought to myself, hand rubbing my chin as we made our way back towards the elevator. "The only one that I saw was the one that we killed, and I crossed quite the distance before I got here." An image of the crashed jeep flitted through my mind, the concrete wall splashed with the same black residue that the tarwolf had left behind when it died. "But there were signs of a fight all over the compound, and I know that at least someone killed one of them with a jeep. Crashed it straight into a wall, flattened the thing and splattered it. At least, that's what it looked like."
Luna hummed to herself. "They may come out at night, they certainly looked like creatures of darkness. Ah..."
"I believe that that, what I just said? It's correct. At least, it feels that way. It's strange: I said the words, and it almost felt like it clicked, slotted right in like a puzzle piece."
"So you must have known about them, assuming there's more than the two we know of. Maybe you studied them? Did experimentation? Perhaps you fought them at length?"
Her pace slowed as she took on a look of concentration, eyebrows furrowing and mouth stretching into a frown. Her wings twitched, feathers flicking a little as she thought, and I felt the overwhelming urge to touch them to see how soft they were. I shook it off.
"I... I'm not sure. It feels right, all three of them, but especially the last. Perhaps that's the most true? It might have been that my experimentation and study was fighting them. Maybe I was determining the best way to kill them by fighting them? No, that doesn't feel right, not like a puzzle piece. At least, not a puzzle piece that fits with what I have already."
I went to pat her on the head, then halted as I rethought at the last moment, patting her back instead. Hopefully that wouldn't be as offensive, if offensive it was. I breathed a small sigh of relief as instead of getting angry, she actually seemed to enjoy it, making a faint rumbling sound in her chest.
"Look, like I said, it'll come back. If we're using a puzzle as an analogy, then we're just now assembling the borders and getting the middle pieces in line. It'lll take time, it might take work, but it'll come back to you, your highness."
"Perhaps..." she frowned. "However, we- er, I think you should refer to me by name, not my title."
My hands flexed nervously. "Are you sure? I mean-"
She raised an eyebrow. "Do you see anypony else? Griffons? Minotaurs? Buffalo?"
"Well, no, but-"
"Then there should be no issue if I wish you to refer to me by my given name. I'd like to think that I may utilize Twilight's teachings this once, even if the start of this friendship was a little... well, rough."
I was surprised by this turn of events, but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't pleased. I mean, here was Princess Luna herself, convincing me to just call her 'Luna' and scrap decorum because she wanted to be my friend. I was more or less living the dream of any fan of the show right now.
"Alright then, Luna. If you say so."
She nodded, once, decisively. "And I do."
The narrow parts of the hallway meant for defense meant that we couldn't walk side by side. Instead, Princess Luna- just Luna now, I supposed- went first, a confidence in her stride that hadn't been present earlier. She had a purpose now, A goal, and I suppose that having that one thing to focus on was helping her greatly. Because of this, she reached the elevator doors before I did, examining the card reader.
"I assume you-?"
"Don't worry, I got it."
I stepped around her, the hallway thankfully wide enough at this point to accommodate the maneuver, and slipped the admin card out of my pocket and through the reader. After a moment, the elevator doors opened with a 'ding', and both of us stepped into the car. I pressed the button and the doors shut, the car shuddering just slightly before sinking down, deeper into the ground. As the numbers ticked down, I cleared my throat, Luna sending me a curious glance as I started speaking.
"I don't think I explicitly said this, but... thank you. For not shooting me, and all. And if I can call you Luna, then you can call me Matt."
Her grin was surprisingly wry, and she spoke with a slightly teasing lilt. "Oh? You're sure that you don't want to be referred to differently? Your highness? Perhaps, your grace?"
I pretended to think about it, hand going to my chin and rubbing it, the picture of deep thought. "No, I believe that my name will be enough, in exchange for breakfasts in a king sized bed every morning."
"Well, we've got military cots, and I can throw you an energy bar."
"That will be enough, thank you."
We both chuckled. Neither of us wanted to admit it, but we were both on edge, just thinking about everything. Even through the amusement on her face, I could see the tenseness in her muscles, the lines of worry beneath it all tracing their way across her muzzle. I could understand: she had just woken up in a world strange and different to her, huge chunks of her memory missing, her friends and sister nowhere to be found, and the only person around being someone she didn't know, of a species that I don't think that she was ever aware of before. I, on the other hand... I was here. Maybe stuck, maybe permanently, maybe not. What I was afraid of was being stuck here until I died, one way or another.
Thankfully, that particular line of thought was interrupted by another ding. The elevator doors slid open, and we stepped back into the lab, Luna trotting out of the car and me following in her wake.
This place hadn't changed since the last time we'd been through here, huge amounts of undisturbed and abandoned lab equipment scattered around the central feature of the tanks of blue liquid. Luna paused at these, looking into their depths with a perplexed sort of confusion, trying to fit them, trying to place them, just trying to find any place in their memory where they might fit or trigger or slide into place. She remained there for a few moments longer, then sighed and gave up, moving onward through the room towards the room where she'd been in stasis.
As we pushed the doors open, Luna holding the doors wide with magic as we passed through, we realized that something had changed. Towers of equipment, almost resembling server towers, covered in wires and humming softly to themselves, had risen out of the ground at regular intervals. They formed a grid in the room, taller than me, row after row of them packed in close enough that there was only the distance of one of their sides between each tower.
Luna spoke up, her voice soft and barely carrying over the humming. "What is this?"
I cleared my throat, trying to clear some of the nervousness from it. "I'm not sure. I don't think it's harmful, so for the moment..."
Luna nodded. "Focus. Yeah."
We made our way among the towers to the center of the room, where the stasis chamber stuck out of the ground, lid wide open now that its occupant had been divulged. Luna paused here, examining the thing, tracing the ultrathick cables that led out of one side of the tube and into the ground.
"This is where I woke up? Where you found me?"
I nodded. "Yeah. It was sealed up tight, and I didn't know what it was until I saw the label, which named the thing for me. And even then, it was a real shock to see that it was you of all ponies that was the occupant. I had expected a tech, or a scientist, someone who'd worked here..."
"But instead you got so much more than you bargained for." I nodded again.
She remained there for a few moments, raising a hoof and touching the control panel, mouthing the side effects of the wake up protocol to herself. Suddenly, she snorted and stamped, shaking her head and trotting through the eerily regular forest of square towers and towards the back of the room. She stopped two rows away from the huge screen, and as I walked up besides her and leaned against the glass side of one of the towers, I could see her eyes tracing the numbers one by one.
"So." I said.
"So." She replied.
"One week- well, six days and change. Timer's counting down, started by your release, for some reason I can't fathom."
She hummed. "We've got the time to figure this out. Obviously this, whatever it was, was designed to initiate when I was released. I'd assume that whomever programmed it as such expected me to know what to do about it the moment I woke up."
"Then why the extra time?"
She made another humming sound, her eyes narrowing ever so slightly, thoughtfully. "I'm not sure... perhaps it's a contingency, just in case I was not capable of remembering whatever I need to know about it. Maybe I was supposed to postpone it and wait for something else, or perhaps it's a condition, in that it's not so much counting down to an ultimate thing as it is counting down until an action that I must preform, or perhaps the unlocking of something."
"Maybe the castle? It's locked up tight, after all. The place was in lockdown when I got here, I had to retrieve a couple ID cards and swipe them through a reader to lift it... perhaps this is just the next phase of the lockdown? Maybe you need to be released to do it, and this is the time in which you have to perform the actions that lift the lockdown?"
A sigh. "Maybe, perhaps, might be... we're dealing with too much guessing and too little absolutes. We don't know much more than what we've pieced together just observing our surroundings, and that's not enough."
I rubbed the underside of my nose, gaze drifting downwards towards the bottom of the screen itself.
"Regardless," she continued, "we have this time to solve it and we're burning time."
I pushed myself off of the tower and back onto my feet, clapping my hands together.
"That I can agree with. Shall we, Luna?"
She grinned at the use of her name, and I felt a flicker of surprise at the enjoyment she showed at that minor thing.