Chapter 44: Silent Goodnight
The night still dark and starry, the moon bright and full. It was as peaceful as Canterlot hadn't seen in a long time through its recent hardships. In the refreshingly cool air, a gentle breeze blew as if to lull the fears of those that resided within. Nothing stirred in the castle grounds, save for a few patrolling guards.
Up in his room, the balcony doors open to the air, James sat on the side of his bed. Beside him, he gazed down at the peacefully sleeping form of Rainbow Dash, admiring the way the moonlight fell upon her. The gentleness of her breath rising and falling made his heart catch and it pained hi all the more, knowing what he was about to do.
She stirred slightly in her sleep, her breathing becoming irregular. James reached out and began stroking her mane and her shoulder. After a moment or so, she returned to her same peaceful rhythms, a contented smile crossing her lips.
Steeling himself, James leaned over her and placed a light kiss on her brow. Then careful not to awaken her, he stood and grabbed a couple of small duffle bags. He tread softly to the door and eased it open, turning just briefly for one last look. He mouthed, 'I'm sorry', and then he was over the threshold.
Some time later, a shadowy figure exited a wing of the castle used for powerful research in magic. It was a biped with two bags on his back, one that gently clinked occasionally as the metal items inside were jostled and another that concealed a mysterious sphere the size of a soccer ball. From shadow to shadow he crept, taking pains to avoid any eyes that would view him suspiciously.
In a round about way, he meandered down to the docks. When he reached them, he stalked to the fenced off section reserved for military operations. He strolled casually through the front gate, the guards usually on station having been mysteriously ordered to stand-down for a time by Royal Decree.
Striding towards the back, he made his way for the Clipper, now a museum piece compared to the updated models of attack ships around him. He smiled as thought of how full-circle the situation had come. From under the shadow of the ship's buoyancy bladder, another figure appeared. This one on four legs and in a coat of fur that seemed to blend effortlessly with the darkness around.
"All charged up and ready for flight, Mr. Kaughn." Howitzer said as he flitted down to the deck on his wings. "It wasn't easy, but it's done. Why do you want this old clunker anyway?"
"Sentimental value." James replied as he opened the sliding side door.
"Y'know, I know the mare this belongs to. Boy, is she gonna be mad when she finds it gone in the morning."
"Probably, but she'll just design and build better one."
Howitzer eyed the spherical sack as James stepped aboard and placed it in one of the trunks under the fold down seating, along with a liberal amount of padding and rags. "You're really bringing that, huh? I was really surprised when she said you could take that. Don't let that thing slip out of your hands unless you really want a bad day."
"So I've been told." James said as he stashed the rest of his gear away. "The Sky Patrol has been redirected just like I asked?"
"That's correct." Howitzer confirmed. "Might wanna get a move on though, those guys can get too curious for their own good sometimes. Always looking for a challenge."
"Fuckin' outstanding." Slowly, James turned around to face his one pony departure committee. "Thanks for all the help."
"Remember, you can't let anyone know about what happened here."
"They'll find out eventually when they find all the missing stuff and the fact you're no longer present."
"I'll be long gone by then."
"I hope so, for your sake. Well... good luck then. Try to make it back in one piece."
James shut the door and after a cursory check of the engine, moved to the cockpit and started it up. The Clipper hummed to life with instrument panels flashing dull lights and the subtle vibration through its deck. In no time, the ship was lifting off the pad and into the sky.
He climbed up to an altitude level with the silver lined clouds and set the course. Trusting the precision design of his old friend and teammate, James left the cockpit to navigate on its own and climbed up the small ladder in the back of the cabin to the tiny open upper deck of the craft for one last look at what he was leaving behind. He was sure at that altitude, it would be a sight to remember.
Across the panorama of the open air was a variety of islands consisting of fat cumulous and low stratus clouds, dancing though the nocturnal sky. The light of the moon painted them all with a radiant silver glow, as if they'd been bathed in quicksilver. James leaned against the railing on his elbows, enjoying the sight thoroughly, one hand clutching the pendant he still wore around his neck, now the only reminder of her he had. Then a silhouette caught his eye.
Standing amongst a bank of clouds nearly level with his ship was a tall dark mare gazing silently back at him with a sorrowful glare. Back-lit by the moon itself, Luna watched as the ship passed by, like a lonesome specter of the night. James stared back, unapologetic. He had made his choice and she had helped him do it.
But still, he stood up straight and put two fingers to his brow, flicking them away in a short salute. Luna lingered for a moment longer, watching him go. Then she raised her beautiful wings high and took to the air. She circled once, twinkling mane of peaceful night sky billowing in the wind of her flight and then she was gone.
Vectoring back towards Canterlot, Luna returned to her home, pondering what she would say once the morning came. She looked back once, hoping for one last glimpse of the man that seemed unnaturally adamant of bringing about his own doom. But by then, he too had vanished. Gone, into the vast nocturne of the night.
Jackson awoke, refreshed and eager for the day. It was the first time in a awhile he had actually managed to sleep-in. He stretched in his bed, thinking about what he might enjoy for breakfast and got up. It took him only a few minutes to shave and get dressed, a routine he completed quickly from years of habit.
Thoughts turned to the day before and his talk with James. He felt it had been good, a step in the right direction. His friend hadn't returned from his walk the night before, as far as he knew. He had left Rainbow Dash in the room and went off to brief his teammates of the situation that had been revealed to him before the morning's unfortunate incident. He was sure James was just fine, probably even now awakening from a restful sleep.
Emerging from his quarters for the first time that day, Jackson made for the kitchens, hoping to catch the cooks making something delicious. As he walked down the passageway, he passed by the door to another room and paused. From the room, he was sure he could hear vengeful screaming and venting. It worried him for a moment, even more so when Sparks hastily stepped out with his son in tow.
"Good morning, brother, everything all right in there?" Jackson asked out of concern.
Sparks glanced away from the door with a fearful glance, a little surprised at Jackson's presence. "Oh, yeah, don't worry. She's not mad at me, but she needs time to calm down."
"If it's not too personal, what happened?"
"Oh, not at all. She went out for an early morning flight and well..." he rubbed the back of his head, "it seems as if her airship was stolen. The one she built with her own horn and hooves." There was a crash from the room as if to punctuate his sentence.
Jackson looked quizzically at Sparks, "Isn't that area heavily guarded?"
"That's the thing. Apparently, there was some weird change of watch last night—one I didn't authorize—and that's when it happened." He winced as he heard something else topple over in the room. "I've managed to convince her to not go and start tearing out throats, but I don't know how long that'll last."
"Mommy's going kukoo!" Flicker gleefully cried.
Sparks looked down with a smile and ruffled his son's mane. "That's right! And now we need to go find some chocolate so mommy doesn't go on a rampage!"
Flicker gasped, "What's a rampage, daddy, can I go on a rampage!?" He excitedly asked.
Sparks chuckled and looked up at Jackson, "He's his mother's son."
"I guess so." Jackson shrugged.
"Hey, can you do me a favor and tell me if you hear anything? A security breach like this is kind of embarrassing and I'd really like to get to the bottom of this."
"Sure thing. I'm curious myself. I'm heading to breakfast right now, you wanna come?" Jackson offered.
"Ah, no thanks. Me and Flicker have a mission to complete." Another crash from the room. "And we should probably get it done quickly."
"All right then, later."
Jackson continued his walk, the sounds of an enraged mare fading in the distance. The theft really did strike him as odd, especially the circumstances in which it happened. He decided he'd think about it later, after he got some food in his belly.
As he neared the kitchens, he could smell the overwhelmingly delicious scent of baked goods wafting through the air. Following the trail, he came upon the service entrance for the kitchens. He decided to peek in and saw all manner of cooks and chefs preparing dozens of meals in what could best be described as organized chaos.
He stayed in the door for a moment, watching the goings on, until he heard a rather disgruntled 'ahem'. He looked over and saw a most comical sight. A tall griffon in a chef's hat and a long curly mustache on his beak. Jackson didn't know such a thing was even possible.
The griffon was glaring at him, arms crossed and impatiently tapping one of his hind paws on the kitchen floor. "Pardon me, missuer, but do you have any business here?" He asked in a vaguely french sounding accent, clearly annoyed.
"Oh, sorry. I was just wondering if I could get something to eat."
"Then you can wait with the others in the dining hall!" The griffon stamped. "We have much work to do here without your rude interruption."
"Oh, ok, sorry man. I'll just—"
"Mr. Jackson?" Pinkie wandered by the door, balancing a large plate of assorted pastries atop her head.
"Madame Pie, pardon his rudeness. He was just leaving." The griffon said.
"Don't be silly, Gustave, he's a friend! Oh, by the way, your souffle is burning."
"Mine souffle? Oh, non non non!" The griffon's eyes went wide and he rushed away in a panic to a corner of the kitchen, muttering obscenities under his breath the whole way.
Pinkie giggled and set the plate of pastries carefully down on a nearby counter. "So, Dari, what can I do you for?" She said cheerfully.
"Dari?" Jackson responded questioningly.
"Your name is Darius, right? I like it, it's fun to say." She opened her mouth wide, "DA-ri-US!" Jackson chuckled a little awkwardly. "Dari sounds more fun though." She smiled.
"Yeah, I guess it kinda does. Listen, sorry to bother you and all, but I was just wondering if I could score a little something to eat?"
"Oh, is that all? Here, on the house!" She grabbed a plate and flipped some of the pastries onto it, handing it over to him.
Jackson gratefully accepted it and politely excused himself. In an effort to find somewhere quiet to eat, he took his plate, filled with the delicious aroma of baked apples and cherries, and traipsed out to the gardens. He found a bench and sat to enjoy his meal in the warmth of the sun. As he munched on his food, he thought about what else he should do today.
He didn't get to enjoy himself for long though. He had only just started digging in to his third pastry when someone came running towards him. Jackson recognized the sound of boots on the grass and looked up. "Oi, Jacko!" It was Mayfield and he looked a little worried. Mayfield looking worried was never a good thing, he had learned.
"Hey, what's up?" Jackson waved a little with his free hand.
Mayfield slowed to a stop next to the bench, panting a little bit. He had to have sprinted the whole way. "Nothin' good, mate. It's the Princesses. Celestia's gone mental, full stop. Everything's gone tits up."
Jackson put down his plate and stood up, "Whoa, slow down now, what's going on?" He asked, full of concern.
"It's your boy, Kaughn. He left and he took some things with him."
"Yeah, you better come with me."
Jackson was furious in his own right, and he still didn't know if he could believe what he'd just heard. Still, he followed Mayfield as he turned and trotted away. They jogged together, weaving their way around servants and guards, even almost knocking over a few. After a minute, Jackson realized where they were heading. Mayfield was leading him to the R&D department.
As they neared their destination, Jackson noticed a large abundance of guards in that particular area. The was an especially heavy amount by the entrance, but they allowed the two humans to pass unopposed. Jackson recognized this area. It was the place he had involuntarily tested the strange reactive armor. He had no idea what else they could be storing there.
Up ahead, he spotted Dr. Wright yelling at a group of assistants by a large, heavily armored safe door. Mayfield was leading him there, so he caught a snippet of the verbal lashing as they passed, "...realize the unimaginable consequences of what has happened here!? That was one of the most powerful sources of energy that we had! It still wasn't entirely stable, do you know what kind of destruction it can wreak were the containment to be breached!?"
"B-but sir," one of the assistants stammered, "we swear, everything was locked down w-when we left!"
"Then explain to me how in the world he got into the Hazmat locker!" The esteemed doctor closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead. "No, don't do that, you imbeciles probably have no clue. This wouldn't have happened were Cray still here." He muttered.
There was another guard, this one clearly from the RSTG, standing at the slightly ajar armored door. He saw Mayfield and Jackson approaching and waved them through. As they entered, an argument of another kind could be seen and heard. This one of a much higher caliber.
"I absolutely can not believe you've done this, sister! What in Equestria could you have been thinking?"
"You know what danger we face, Tia! I like it no more than you, but even you yourself said that he may be the only one capable of ending it!"
"That was before what we witnessed the past morning. He is a danger in itself now. You should have never allowed him to do this!"
"You think he asked permission? He could just as well have done this without my intervention and perhaps caused much damage and loss in the process!"
"I do not think he would have been able to access this place. Luna, you should have stopped him once you were aware of his intentions!"
"How, Tia? How should I have stopped him? You know as well as I of his capabilities. Even more, you know that he may have some we are not yet aware of. What would you have me do, toss him in the dungeons where he might still escape? Or perhaps use much more violent methods?"
"There was another option." Celestia said angrily, yet with hesitation. "One I was loath to perform a millennia ago."
"And you would do that to him, after all he has done for us and our home?" Luna hissed, taken aback by such words.
"Yes. If it is what needs to be done. You know well what may reside with him, even if you do think he can control it. There is no guarantee."
Witnessing the sibling conflict, Mayfield cautiously approached. "Your Highnesses, I've retrieved him as you requested."
Jackson stepped forward, "What's going on, where's Kaughn?"
Celestia turned to face him, "It seems that with my sister's help, hour friend has absconded with some very powerful technology we were developing."
"For what, why'd he leave?"
Luna came forward to answer that, "He was very secretive about his intentions when he came to me. But from the information he was asking for, I believe he has gone to complete what we spoke of yesterday."
"That mother-" Jackson muttered under his breath, but caught himself when he remembered the company he was in. "With what? We were all there, he couldn't even hold the sword."
"Which is why this is so troubling." Celestia put in. "In its stead, he took a powerful energy source being created for the intention of fueling our cities cheaply and cleanly. It uses the same magical technology applied in our small airships and the Lotkins' explosives in the last war. I'm told, while being near completion, it is still not stable yet, a hard enough impact could set it off, causing insurmountable destruction."
"Would that even work?" Mayfield asked. "I mean, from what you said yesterday, that sword you made was the only way to hurt the thing."
"There is a slim chance. Slim, but obscure, that such force could damage the being enough to expel it from our world, but it would not be the same."
The realization of what his old friend was trying to do dawned on Jackson. Acting quickly, he stormed out of the safe. Celestia saw him leaving and called out to him, "Where are you going?"
With out stopping, Jackson shouted over his shoulder, "I'm going to get him back!"
"All right!" Mayfield started off excitedly and ran to catch up with Jackson, the two Princesses followed close behind. "It was starting to get a bit boring around here."
"Jackson, I highly advise against this." Celestia warned as they exited the research lab. "The place he is traveling to is extremely dangerous."
"Then help me." Jackson countered as he made for the armory. "I'll be damned if he's gonna do this to me again! Especially now that he's at least found some happiness here, whatever his problems."
"Well, I've got your back, mate." Mayfield said jubilantly, slapping Jackson on the shoulder. "This is the kind of pear-shaped shit that usually ends up with all us dead, but then, who dares..."