Chapter 3: Diversion
The next week we spent in the camp wasn’t exactly a deathless experience; sure, the guards clearly studied How to Be an Oppressive Tool very diligently, quickly yelling at anyone who was smiling or laughing, and even applying mild beatdowns to anyone who showed them any lip. However, they also kept us fed with decent food, and often left us alone unless they were feeling bored. All the Somber Blade did when not applying the whip was watch us... Like they were waiting for someone to do something.
Every morning we’d be woken up by that same horn that had been blown before we met Bulwark; we’d be lined up outside our tents for a headcount before being left to our own devices for the entire day, having breakfast, lunch and dinner before being lined up for attendance again and going to bed. After the second day we began falling into the routine, finding ways to amuse ourselves as the hours dragged on, but I was still thankful the Somber Blade didn’t have us performing slave labor; they looked like the type to do so.
In our own tent, Jake, Pete, Lily and I bonded rather quickly, only talking about the show occasionally, mainly discussing our lives as humans. Pete Cain worked as a doctor, as evidenced by his stethoscope cutie mark, at a hospital in New York. His brother Jake was in a local college, trying to get a degree in sociology, but he mainly spent his time working as a human rights activist; with this information I realized what his broken chain cutie mark stood for: freedom... Breaking the bonds who would control you. Jake was skeptical at this, but I thought he’d keep thinking about it. Lily Mason told us that she had a bit of an adventurous spirit, often going rock-climbing or skydiving, but spending her time in between getting doped up on Pony. She said she had to stop after... something, she clammed up before she could tell us. I guessed that she needed some time, so I didn’t press.
Despite the guards’ best efforts to make us feel like complete and utter shit, we, the alicorns, did our best to remain in high spirits. Mainly with the knowledge that we were, more or less, living the dream: we bronies were in Equestria! Sure, we hoped for a way out soon, but we decided to play the waiting game. It was only a matter of time before somepony found one of the camps and spread the word to Celestia, then we’d be free and could do everything a brony dreamed of doing... Flying with Rainbow Dash, caring for Fluttershy’s animals, but, most importantly, living a blissful life of pure harmony.
So, we let the Somber Blade do their thing, but every time a guard shouted at us for “disturbing the peace” or simply looking too happy, we did what bronies always do in the face of adversity. We looked the guard in the eye and said “Love and tolerate.” It often pissed the guards off even more, but we knew that we were getting to them far better than they were getting to us.
But Pete was getting rather antsy; he didn’t like not knowing what the Somber Blade were planning to do with us. At every opportunity he would try to eavesdrop on the patrolling guards, but they never talked to each other outside of the rooms within the walls. Pete once had me keep watch while he tried to sneak into one of the towers, but the door was locked. We were lucky we weren’t spotted, but Pete was growing increasingly restless. A week after we had arrived in the camp, when everyone had gone to bed, Pete suddenly spoke up in the darkness, causing me to wake up with a startled snort. “I’ve got it!”
I tried to say “What?” but I was still at the halfway point between sleep and being awake, so I made a noise somewhere along the lines of “Whivuhvuh...?” as I rubbed my eyes.
Pete turned up the flame in the lantern on the table. “I know how we can get some answers... It’s so simple!”
Lily rolled over in bed and faced the wall of the tent, turned away from the increasing light. “Can you tell us in the morning...?”
“No, no; I need to tell you now, while it’s fresh!” Pete insisted.
“If it means we can get back to sleep, then tell us...” Jake muttered from above my bunk.
“Creed,” Pete looked at me, a serious look in his eye. “You think you can take a punch?”
For hopefully obvious reasons, I immediately dreaded what Pete had in mind.
- - - - -
Lily lingered around the door to one of the towers furthest away from our tent, waiting for the opportune moment. I stood next to a friend of Jake’s, Steve Murphy; the yellow alicorn who had visited our tent a week ago. The corpulent Somber Blade chef laid out our usual lunch - a loaf of bread, water and various vegetables (they evidently wanted us healthy for whatever their plans were). Steve and I walked close to one another towards the tables, balancing our trays on our backs. Pete was sitting nearby, munching on his food, when he did the signal. Pete pretended to catch something in his throat and made a loud coughing noise. I took care to watch Pete ‘choke’, and Steve snatched some of my veggies from the tray on my back. I immediately looked back at my tray, then at Steve, and tried to make it look real. “Hey!” I snapped. “That’s my food!”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about!” Steve said defensively; I had to give him credit, he was pulling off the part well.
“You stole my food is what I’m talking about, asshole!” I said, adding a dash of anger.
“Whatever, douche...” Steve said, preparing to turn away, but I quickly snatched his loaf of bread from his tray. Steve turned to me so fast he dropped his tray and gave me a shove, causing me to spill my own tray.
Okay, this is looking good... I thought before responding to Steve’s shove with a shove of my own. Steve stumbled backwards into a table behind him; we were attracting a great deal of stares, from both alicorn and the Somber Blade patrolling the wall - just how Pete wanted. Steve lunged forward and tackled me to the ground, but I quickly rolled us over so I was on top of him; I gave him a punch across the face, trying to be gentle, yet real at the same time.
Now, I sort of lost track of what happened next, but what I do know is that we had somehow managed to bring up a legitimate dust cloud over our little brawl, like the kind you’d see cartoon characters become obscured by during a fight between two or more parties. We kept shouting as we ‘punched’ and ‘kicked’ each other. But through the clouds of dust I could make out the tower door swinging open as a pair of unicorn Somber guards poured forth; Lily, who had been hiding beside the door, wasted no time in wedging a stick in the frame to keep it from closing all the way before diving inside.
The guards sprinted for us and each used their magic to separate us; we put on a show of continuing to try and fight some more, fighting against the levitating force that held us in the air, but one of the guards yelled “THAT’S ENOUGH!” and we stopped. The guard that was gripping me with his magic held me close. “What’s the meaning of this?”
“He stole my food!” I barked, pointing an accusing hoof at Steve; I thought it would be best to keep the act going, buy Lily some time to leaf through the tower. Steve evidently had the same thought, as he kept glaring at me loathingly.
The guards looked at each other for a moment before looking back at us. “You’re going to see Bulwark,” the other guard said with a sneer. I dared a quick glance at Pete; this wasn’t part of the plan! Pete gave a slight, encouraging nod as the guards levitated us towards one of the other towers; just beyond the door there was a room lined with weapon racks along the walls, and a staircase on the left. The guards carried us up the stairs and into a room with a big, fancy desk lined with various papers, with an equally fancy chair behind it. In the chair sat Bulwark, sans helmet, reading one of the papers before looking up at us.
“And what is this?” He asked, not showing any real interest.
“These two got into a fight, sir,” the alicorn holding me said. “This one,” he gave me a quick shake to indicate who he was talking about. “says that the other one stole food from him.” Bulwark raised an eyebrow with interest.
“Set them down and leave us,” he said. The guards released their magic, allowing us to land on the floor somewhat painfully. As we stood up, Bulwark leaned back in his chair. “So... you stole his food, Mister...”
“Murphy. Steve Murphy,” Steve said. “And... yes, yes I did.”
Bulwark narrowed his eyes at us for a moment. “Hmm...” He thought for a moment before saying “Ah!” and turning to me. “Well then, I suppose justice is mine to dish out, eh, Mister...?”
Bulwark then seemed to recognize me from the previous week and chuckled. “You will eat all of Mister Murphy’s meals, as well as your own, for the next three days, directly in front of him. That should certainly teach him better than to steal from you. Good day, gentlecolts...” He gave a dismissive gesture while pulling out some papers, so we hurried down the stairs. The guards escorted us out of the tower, giving us a quick shove back into the camp before heading back to the tower they had come from. I cast a quick, anxious glance at that tower, worried that Lily was still in there, but then I spotted her hurrying away from the place, holding her mane like a makeshift bag as she ran towards our tent.
While Pete walked over to quietly thank Steve for his help, I dashed over to our tent, ignoring the stares from all the other alicorns. As I flung the tent flap aside I saw Lily and Jake sitting on the floor, huddled around what she had gathered: a pair of two inch thick, blood-red orbs; a large, rolled-up parchment; and, what I considered to be the real prize of the haul, a key. Pete came into the tent shortly after me and gave a delighted laugh at what Lily had managed to find.
“This is GREAT!” Pete said. “Excellent job, guys!” He disregarded the orbs for the moment and unfurled the parchment, giving another laugh at what it was: a map of Equestria. The four of us leaned over the map and studied it; it was clearly purchased (or stolen) from any store that sold maps, and the Somber Blade had made a wide variety of scribbles across several features of it. Many numbers littered the areas that highlighted the San Palomino Desert, the Badlands and the Hayseed Swamps. The only scribble that wasn’t a number on the map was of the letters “HQ”, laid upon a mesa in the San Palomino. We stared at the scribbles for a moment before it hit me.
“There’s the camps...” I said, scanning around the map, mainly in the Hayseed Swamp. Where was it, where was- “There!” I pointed (as accurately as I could with a hoof) at it. “89! This is Camp 89, this is where we are!” My eyes fell on the ‘HQ’. “So that would be their headquarters...”
Jake looked at all the other numbers on the map. “So many camps... how many other alicorns are they holding?”
Pete gave the key a nudge. “Well, this little baby is the first step towards freeing them all...” He said, unable to keep a hint of pride from his voice.
I looked up at Pete. “Wait, what?”
Pete looked back at me. “You don’t want to be in here forever, do you?”
“No, no I don’t, but...” I bit my lip. “You really think the four of us can free hundreds, if not thousands of people?”
“It only took six ponies to save the world, three times,” Pete said.
“Well, that was different,” I argued. “They’re the Elements of Harmony! We’re just four friends... And yeah, I know, in Equestria, Friendship is Magic and all, but...”
“...But what?” Pete asked.
I dragged my hoof along the floor. “I’ve... never been the... heroic type.”
“Then what type were you?” Pete asked, raising an eyebrow.
I opened my mouth to respond, but I couldn’t think of anything to say; back on Earth I’d been going for a Liberal Studies major, since I was unsure of what I wanted to do with my life. When I wasn’t at school or work I’d always be in my room, hunched at my computer desk playing games or watching ponies. I snapped out of my trance, unable to find a good answer.
“Now, what are these things?” Pete asked, nudging the orbs with his nuzzle. I picked one of them up with my hoof (bizarrely) and held it up, looking closely. Up close, the orb looked like a clear, glass sphere with a constantly shifting cloud of red smoke inside of it. I held the orb closer to my eyes, gazing deeply into the orb, before I noticed it; the silhouette of... something. I squinted my eyes, trying to make it out, and it suddenly became clear; Jake. I looked over at Jake, who was gazing deeply into the other orb before suddenly looking back at me. Pete took the orb from him and looked inside. “These orbs, they... they let us see the person who has the other!”
“Maybe more...” I muttered. I held the orb close to my mouth and whispered a less-than-kind comment about Pete into it, quietly enough that the others couldn’t hear it. But Pete evidently heard it through his own orb, as he shot a cross look at me.
“Hey!” He said resentfully, before rolling his eyes and placing the orb next to the key. He bent over the map again, scanning for Camp 89. He trailed his hoof from the camp to the nearby town on the edge of the swamp. “Look, Dodge Junction! You guys remember that, right?”
“How could we forget?” I asked as a certain, beloved voice echoed in the back of my mind, claiming her ignorance to what exactly had gone wrong.
“Well,” Pete continued. “Dodge isn’t that far from here; we would just have to escape under cover of night and fly west; if we can’t fly very fast, we’ll run...” He laid his hoof beneath his chin, thinking. “We’d get onto a train from Dodge and head to- where else?- Ponyville... We find some...pony... anypony... who can help us. Twilight, Celestia... We need to spread the word that the alicorns are being held captive.”
Lily squirmed uncomfortably where she sat. “I don’t like the idea of leaving everyone here... Why should we escape while everyone else keeps suffering here?”
Pete nodded. “Hmm, you’re probably right... And also, we’d still have no clue what the hell they’re gonna do with us...” Pete’s eyes fell on the orbs. He stared at them for a minute before letting out a sigh. “I think a couple of us should stay here. We can use these orbs to communicate with whoever leaves, keep each other informed of what’s happening, inside and outside the camp.”
“So who gets to leave?” Jake asked. The four of us sat silently; we had a lot to consider in this decision. Our inner bronies were screaming at the chance to get out and see Equestria proper, meet the characters we’d grown to love... But we also knew that, once outside, we’d pretty much be making things up as we went along, potentially facing a great deal of disbelief from those we’d tell our story to...
“I’m gonna stay,” Jake said suddenly.
Pete looked to his brother. “Say what now?”
“I’m staying,” Jake repeated, firmly. “I couldn’t bear to leave these people here... I’d be constantly worrying about them suffering at the hands- or hooves, rather- of those Somber Bastards...”
Pete stared at Jake for a few moments before sighing. “Fine... then I’m staying too.”
“Say what now?”
“I’m NOT leaving my kid brother here alone,” Pete said, laying a hoof on Jake’s shoulder. Jake opened his mouth to argue, but promptly shook his head. Evidently, the brothers were equally stubborn. Pete looked to Lily and I. “Guess it’s up to you two.”
Lily and I glanced from each other to Pete and Jake, making noises like “Ah,” and “But...” and “What...” before groaning in resignation.
“We should get you out soon,” Pete said, rolling up the map. “Tonight, if possible. Before they realize that these things are missing.” Lily and I shared an uneasy glance, but the shouting of a Somber Guard outside drew our attention. We all poked our heads through the tent flap and watched as a Somber Guard was smacking a poor white stallion around the head with his staff, guffawing at the alicorn wincing in pain from each smack. The four of us retreated into our tent. Lily and I nodded to each other, then to Pete.
The four of us gave our goodbyes that night before turning in early. Jake volunteered to stay awake and get us up at a late hour, when the guards would likely be faltering from exhaustion. It took me awhile to fall asleep... I couldn’t help but feel anxious about the following day, and yet excited at the same time. What would we face out there? What familiar faces would we see? But one thought gave me a sick feeling in the deepest part of my stomach; Would I ever see my family again? I fell asleep before I could seriously consider that point.